Counting the costs of an apocalyptic news cycle

A humanitarian crisis and murderous terrorism abroad; natural disaster and pandemic mass death at home. Even by its recent, dreadful standards, the news cycle is especially hellish across an especially wide range of fronts right now, and journalists and their editors must balance the horrors. The Delta variant of the coronavirus has continued to ravage the US, and yet, in recent weeks, much media attention has been diverted to Afghanistan, where the Taliban has taken control; on Thursday, amid a crush to evacuate at Kabul’s airport and sharp warnings of a terror threat there, a regional affiliate of ISIS carried out a highly deadly suicide bombing outside the gates. Then, yesterday, Hurricane Ida—a historic storm that, as the Washington Post put it, looks like “the poster child for a climate change-driven disaster”—made landfall in Louisiana, causing severe flooding, tearing roofs off buildings, and knocking out power, including across the whole of New Orleans. Powerlessness might also describe a dominant mood in coverage of this rush of tragedies—or, at least, the feeling one has on taking it all in.

One way that news organizations try to get their arms around massive stories like these is to quantify them. Numbers really started to drive the Afghanistan conversation in the US a week or so ago, as the Biden administration and its allies argued that they deserved more media credit for exceeding even their own evacuation expectations, and journalists debated the impressiveness of the figures and the extent to which they offset criticisms of the withdrawal; then came Thursday’s attack and a much grimmer counting exercise, as the death toll among US service members climbed from some to twelve to thirteen, and the death toll among Afghan civilians climbed from more than sixty to more than ninety to more than a hundred and seventy and rising. Big-picture COVID coverage—always a grim counting exercise, whatever the accuracy of the counting—is starting to crystallize around US hospitalization and death rates that are at their highest levels in months and have just peaked beyond round-number yardsticks (more than a hundred thousand and more than a thousand per day, respectively), as well as alarming new death projections. COVID numbers have shown up in Ida coverage, too, thanks to Louisiana’s relatively low vaccination rates, relatively high hospitalizations and deaths, and low spare hospital capacity. As the storm approached, we heard a lot, too, about its category status (Four but dangerously close to Five). Overnight, Ida became a death story in its own right—its first victim confirmed after a tree fell on a house in Ascension Parish, south of Baton Rouge.

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This isn’t to say, of course, that the coverage of these stories has been reduced to numbers, or that the numbers haven’t been helpful. If it’s hard to avoid the feeling that numbers are inadequate to communicate human suffering, that’s a fault of human suffering as much as one of media coverage; nor is any of this a new observation. Still, the combined depth and breadth of the suffering in the news right now gives the observation a fresh sharpness. Watching the conversation around the rising evacuation numbers failed to alleviate my sense of hopelessness—each person saved is a good-news story, but the sheer weight of life left behind remains crushing. It has felt difficult, too, to reconcile the media anguish around the Kabul bombing and the relative relegation of COVID anguish in the US—a reflection not on the tragedy of the former, but the numbness which, in many quarters, now seems to greet still-awful COVID death figures. (Not that the numbness is new, either.) If numbers are inadequate to communicate suffering, then it makes little sense to say that attention should follow death rates in exact proportion—indeed, that feels monstrous. But it seems clear that the media, as a whole, is better equipped to cover new and shocking causes of deaths than the ones we got used to.

A related question here, which perhaps bears even more directly on the media, is that of the lives we choose to humanize beyond the numbers. Once the service members killed in Kabul had been identified, the US media—rightly—swelled with devastating tributes that highlighted their youth and the lives they left behind. There have also been some tributes to Afghans who died in the attack—the Post’s Ezzatullah Mehrdad and Sudarsan Raghavan, to cite one example, profiled four of them, including a journalist named Ali Reza Ahmadi; Marcus Yam of the LA Times, to cite another, photographed a funeral—but these have been fewer; the Afghan victims’ names weren’t read out on the Sunday shows. There are sharp difficulties in telling their stories—not least the dangers faced by journalists, and their sources, in Afghanistan right now—but it’s hard to conclude that logistics are the only reason for the disparity in attention, at the end of a war whose many Afghan victims have been all but lost to the news cycle, despite diligent work by some reporters on the ground. “No one asks about us,” a man named Jamil, whose brother was killed last week, told Nabih Bulos, of the LA Times. “All the newspapers and all the magazines spoke about the American troops that were killed. It’s frustrating, because Afghan murder, Afghan dead, Afghan blood—it’s not important.”

Yesterday morning, US news organizations aired early reports of another explosion in Kabul, which turned out to be a US drone strike on a vehicle that, officials said, posed an imminent threat to the airport. Major outlets parroted the military line that there were no “initial indications” of civilian casualties—but more skeptical observers expressed reservations, and as time passed, reports started to filter through that the military line was indeed wrong. (“The journalists who still blindly regurgitate and even celebrate official claims about killing terrorists in these strikes are just mouthpieces at this point,” Murtaza Hussain, who writes for The Intercept, tweeted yesterday. “It’d be preferable if they just cut out the middleman and applied to work in public relations for the Pentagon or CIA.”) CNN, citing a journalist on the ground, has now reported that the drone strike killed nine members of a single family, six of them children. The story is still developing, and will need to be watched carefully for the dynamics noted above.

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The Ida story is still developing, too; the hurricane is now a tropical storm, but the danger has not passed, and the full scale of the damage remains to be seen. We have already seen journalism humanizing the cost, especially from local outlets, and can expect to see more of it—but media watchers have expressed fears, too, that some of the coverage will stigmatize the unhoused and those who chose not to evacuate as well as marginalizing the voices of people of color, fears that are well founded. One figure that has recurred in the coverage so far has been sixteen, the number of the years to the day between hurricanes Katrina and Ida; numerous outlets framed the latter storm as the biggest test of New Orleans’s flood defenses since they failed so disgracefully against the former. As Floodlines, an Atlantic podcast hosted by Vann R. Newkirk II, reminded us last year, sections of the media also failed in the aftermath of Katrina, spreading racist misinformation about “looting and lawlessness” on the ground. We now have better access to accurate, round-the-clock information. But the media’s mistakes during Katrina still convey a timeless lesson: that when disaster strikes, we have a great deal of power after all.

Below, more from this hellish news cycle:

  • Afghanistan: Yesterday, news networks broadcast from Dover Air Force Base, in Delaware, as the remains of the thirteen service members killed in Kabul last week were repatriated in the presence of Biden and their families. As CNN’s Kaitlan Collins pointed out on air, the Pentagon has only allowed the press to broadcast images of the process of repatriation, which is known as “dignified transfer,” since 2009, and victims’ families are still asked to sign off on the media’s presence; on this occasion, the families of eleven of the Kabul victims consented, while the families of the other two requested privacy.
  • Ida, I: Yesterday, Al Roker appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press from Lake Pontchartrain, in Louisiana, as waves crashed against him. The clip, and others like it, attracted some criticism online. “Can we please end the normalization of putting meteorologists and reporters at risk during extreme weather events?” Kat Stafford, an AP reporter, tweeted. “What purpose does it serve, aside from shock value, for viewers who need vital information in this moment?” Roker later responded to the critics in a post on Instagram. “For all those who were worried about me out on #lakepontchartrain,” he wrote, “a) I volunteered to do this. Part of the job. b) My crew and I were safe and we are back at our hotel and c) for those who think I’m too old to to be doing this, try and keep up.”
  • Ida, II: Local outlets in Louisiana continued their coverage after the storm hit, in the face of severe obstacles, including the loss of power; WGNO, a TV station in New Orleans, partially evacuated its newsroom and studios after Ida damaged the roof, leaving water to penetrate the building. As CNN’s Brian Stelter reports, social media and other forms of technology have enabled news outlets to follow extreme weather events in ways that weren’t possible before. Yesterday, “reporters weren’t embedded in coastal and low-lying areas because the danger was simply too great, so webcams were the main way to assess the damage,” he writes. “Some locations lost power and/or internet connectivity during the storm, but an impressive number of the cameras remained online.”
  • The pandemic: In an article for The Atlantic, Céline R. Gounder, an epidemiologist, makes the case that Americans are “losing sight of the pandemic endgame.” Americans “have to recalibrate our expectations about what makes a vaccine successful,” Gounder writes. “The public discussion of the pandemic has become distorted by a presumption that vaccination can and should eliminate COVID-19 entirely. Under such an unattainable standard, each breakthrough infection looks like evidence that the vaccines are not working. But in reality, they continue to perform extremely well.”


Other notable stories:

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.