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April 17, 2014

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The language of disaster

A lie repeated often and confidently enough can become widely mistaken for the truth, becoming a belief that obscures the facts. False beliefs about disaster follow this model; their poison is concentrated in a few oft-deployed words, notably “mobs,” “panic” and “looting.”

This poison is being poured out over the disaster zones of the Philippines right now as misleading coverage threatens to become its own disaster, augmenting the existing one.

Attempts at survival are not criminal acts, yet that is how they are often portrayed in news reports suggesting the problem is out-of-control mobs or looting rather than that the largest typhoon ever to make landfall has left thousands dead and tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands without food, water or medical care.

We have headlines like these: “Video Shows Looting in Tacloban Store” (from Euronews); “Looting, Gunfire Erupts in Typhoon-Hit Philippines” (the New York Post); and “Desperate Philippine Survivors Turn to Looting” (the Chicago Tribune). A BBC story quoted an American missionary as saying, “I’m worried it may become a mob situation; we need the military to get there as soon as possible.”

Or take this from the Associated Press: “Mobs overran a rice warehouse” and “parts of the disaster zone are descending into chaos.” As if being hit by 200-mile-an-hour winds that flattened everything they hit and snapped trees like toothpicks wasn’t already chaotic. That AP story quotes a police chief saying, “There has been looting for the last three days,” but it also quotes a congressman saying, “Some communities disappeared, entire villages were wiped out. They were shouting, ‘Food, food, food!’ when they saw me.”

Are these people desperately hungry or are they thugs? The story’s language suggests the latter while everything else suggests the former.

Disasters have been studied very carefully since World War II. The sociologists who do so have concluded that most people are calm, resourceful, altruistic and generally more than decent throughout crises. But you wouldn’t know that from much of the news coverage. Along with electricity and water, the media are too often a service that fails during disasters, spreading rumors and falling back on stereotypes and false beliefs rather than carefully reporting the facts.

The incendiary word “looting,” for example, is often used to suggest that something dangerous, vile and gratuitous is taking place, though it describes what in ordinary times would amount to non-newsworthy petty theft. And these aren’t ordinary times; in a major disaster there is no electricity, so bank machines and credit cards are irrelevant; few if any shops are open; and many homes are simply gone, along with all the supplies in them. All of this means, of course, that there are lots of people without the essentials to survive. Taking necessary supplies from closed and wrecked stores and homes is how people have usually made it through the first days of a disaster, from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

A widely circulated Agence France-Press story about the typhoon described a village councilor treading regretfully among the ruined houses and corpses to gather supplies to feed his family. The headline referred to his actions as looting.

Why does this misrepresentation matter? Thanks to bad journalism, many readers come to believe that the storm victims are criminals or thugs or mobs and that the situation is savage rather than tragic.

That can affect relief aid, and it can also provide cover for a government to take the chaos of the storm as a chance to shift priorities — maybe suspend the constitution, impose long-term martial law, prevent aid from reaching the victims or bring violence rather than help. Governments may do this partly because they believe the media stories.

More than 60 years of disaster studies suggest that actually we do govern ourselves pretty well in crises and in the absence of institutional authority. And most disasters give us more grounds to question institutional authority than to question ordinary human beings. As one journalist in the Philippines wrote privately: “When a man in devastated Tacloban takes food from the shelf of an abandoned grocery, he is called a looter and a thief. When a man in Manila takes money meant for the man in Tacloban, he is called a senator.”

When newspapers report on human suffering, they suggest we should care. When they demonize the same people, they suggest that maybe we don’t have to, and when they focus on the status of material goods rather than that suffering, they suggest property is more important than people.

Maybe these things are true, to them. Are they to you?

Rebecca Solnit is the author, among other books, of “The Faraway Nearby” and “A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster.” She wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

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