July 10, 2005

We live in a world where all things are reduced to dry numbers as quickly as possible (unless you happen to know one of those involved). Be it through a low-level recounting of statistics (which sometimes allows an implicit insertion of "only"); or through shock value of numbers too high to really comprehend: reduction to numbers creates the illusion of objectivity, and thus assists in creating distance. So entrenched is this comparative instinct in the post-Aristotle psyche, we are not likely to stop pulling up numbers for our current events reporting any time soon.

Three events: 9/11, 3/11, and now the London bombing last week -- and in each case the reporting immediately leaped into the numbers game. How could it not? It is an accepted "fact" in our world that the numbers of dead and injured are the most important piece of information to bring first to the world; followed, perhaps, by the numbers of dead and injured who happen to be citizens of our particular country. On discovering that there are deaths, the scope shifts: we are no longer just talking about property damage here. Buildings, infrastructure can be rebuilt. Lives lost or shattered through injury alter families forever. Our disaster was worse than your disaster.

In each case, through sheer coincidence, I happened to be in a position that allowed me initially to learn of the event at the moment of its happening. (As per President Bush's official statement, I will admit that my initial reaction to hearing that an airplane had struck the World Trade Center was that of pilot error. After all, no details on the type of airplane had initially been given: and such a thing had happened before in New York City, at the Empire State Building. But the moment I heard of the second airplane hitting, like so many other people I knew: no coincidence, this.) Like so many other people, I had been glued to the media outlets throughout. 9/11 had been a defining media moment in our lives -- perhaps for the first time ever on a worldwide scale -- but the other two also instantly stopped time and redefined it for those involved: before the attack, after the attack.

Reporters are in a horrendous position, those first few minutes; those first on the scene worst of all. Human instinct is to try to help; as all others on the scene are able to do, if only through digging and the lifting away of debris. Yet if they are to be able to inform the world about what is happening here and now, reporters must stand clear of this very human instinct, seek a certain distance and explain to readers and viewers thousands of miles away what they see and know. Enough media outtakes and alternate camera footage exists that we, the audience, have come to know -- if not understand -- that in some cases the reporter has ceased really to think about what those events mean; that, sometimes, the human drive to help through disseminating information has been replaced by a corporate drive to get the network scoop.

Maybe it was this competitive instinct which underlay the particularly sharp difference in the manner of domestic reporting of these three events?

For the London transit bombing, as for the Madrid transit bombing last year: the media came across as very cautious in the information released. The first reports I had heard out of London mentioned four dead and some 70 injured: but as soon as the same story had mentioned somewhere between four and seven separate explosions and their locations, I already knew the tally was going to rise. (The numbers that jumped into my head then, at that moment, was that it would end up somewhere between 50 and 70 dead, maybe 2000 injured. It was an instant calculation based on what I know of transportation capacities and the local environment: and I was never even consciously aware of having made it.) In subsequent reports the totals did rise, but never once did they leap to sensationalist extremes; I have almost the sense of updates coming as each bit of debris uncovered another unwelcome piece of news, but never a speculation about what horrors potentially could still be waiting to be found. No emotional manipulation, no exaggeration, no sensationalism, especially no deliberate fear-mongering. For lack of better words, I found the reporting to be very sober, yet very matter-of-fact, and especially very grounded.

For 9/11: the torrent of information, the saturation video data bombing, came across as nothing so much as a series of attempts to determine just how terrible the network could make the disaster look. For me, one single death, let alone a hundred, would have been too many: yet there seemed to be almost a competition at times to find out how many thousand deaths were possible. The initial numbers suggested by various networks turned out to be more than ten times the final casualty list. I don't regret that this ended up so: I would have wished for none. What I am asking is why the initial drive to such extremes? If there is no essential moral difference between the killing of one person and the killing of a thousand: why are the projected images of massive, incomprehensible quantities so indispensible?

Surely it can't be coincidence that the different styles of reporting happen to coincide with numbers of competing networks? in which case, what are the different approaches we have come to take for granted doing to our ability to see what lies around us when it is only presented to us plainly, without exaggeration or sensationalism?

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