Disaster Porn, Foreboding Joy, and Gratitude

Recently, the phrase disaster porn has been making a comeback in the form of hashtags and op-ed essays. The timing is not an accident, although the concept nothing new.

This topic is an uncomfortable one for me because I am guilty of it. What one person calls morbid fascination, another defines as being prepared and informed. The alternative feels  like burying your head in the sand. This has become ingrained into my psyche in the wake of Black Lives Matter, the upcoming election, and ongoing problems of global warming and corporate corruption. The plate is very full and so is my way of living.

As one Urban Dictionary user puts it, disaster porn is “when the media puts horrific or tragic images on a 24-hour loop, constantly driving them into your head, and then refers to the events portrayed as an ‘unspeakable tragedy.’ Often times, disaster porn is used to generate financial support. Most commonly associated with 9/11, where every mention of the ‘terrorist outrage’ was followed by an infomercial for NYPD T-shirts and American flag bumper stickers.”

Nowadays, those bumper stickers have been traded in for backgrounds on our Facebook photos. But isn’t it better that we acknowledge tragedy? We are not turning away. We read, watch, and consume.

In 2014, I was tasked with writing about the Sewol ferry tragedy for an online publication. As I began my research, I watched relevant videos from various news sources as a matter of due diligence. In this case, they were primarily retrieved from victims’ cellphones. As I sat through footage of children moments before they passed away and read text messages of farewells sent to their families, I fell apart. I called my mother in tears, unable to explain why exactly was wrong. After all, nothing was wrong with my day on the outset. This incident—motivated by work and money—made me realize I could no longer casually delegate between shying away from hard news, and being consumed by it.

If disaster porn is readily disposed by the media and willingly digested by the general public, why would a disaster like the Louisiana flooding play second fiddle to Ryan Lochte’s tirade in Rio?

“If this storm had a name or if it happened in a city the country recognizes, anchors and camera crews would be abound,” wrote Salon contributor Sean Illing.

“Instead, it’s a half-reported B-story. The disaster porn coverage networks liberally apply to non-stories all the damn time isn’t coming. But this is a sprawling human tragedy, and it’s happening right now, just beyond the view of a media more interested in Justin Bieber’s Instagram status than in the sufferings of flyover country.”

Are we leaning into celebrity, personal disaster stories, rather than existential, even catastrophic signs of disaster? After all, Justin Bieber’s Instagram is his business. The very fact that it’s happening to him means it’s not happening to us. Global warming is a different story. The level to which is can affect humanity makes us equals in the most damning way.

I don’t think it is logical to abandon our sense of anticipation and preparation for things on the other side of the rainbow. I just don’t believe that it has to be mutually exclusive from joy and gratitude. In fact, the person I was before I developed a practice of gratitude was far more socially and politically apathetic. Managing my own life felt overwhelming enough.

In Brene Brown’s audio series “The Power of Vulnerability,” she talks about our habit of making joy foreboding. When we hear a story that is filled with happiness, hope, and celebration, our immediate instinct is to expect something bad to disrupt that happiness. To me, our obsession with foreboding joy and disaster porn come from the same family tree.

I want to care about hard news. I want to stay informed and hear dissenting opinions. But to do so truthfully means having to draw boundaries around my expectations. After a certain point, we can turn our backs on participation if the indulgence of making it a spectator sport sinks in. If the world feels like it’s ending, then it gives us grounds to understand our current events as a logical progression. It means there’s nothing more we can do.

Dr. Brown also argues that practicing gratitude is the most powerful tool we have against foreboding joy. If that is true, then for every piece of damning news, we can find and create the opposite.

A socio-economic model built around tragedy breeds its sustainability. It seems impossible not to follow the red lantern, but we can also guide our own news intake. It is both their responsibility and ours.

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