Via The Los Angeles Times, an op-ed: Typhoon Haiyan and the language of disaster. Excerpt:
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 story in this newspaper described "rampant looting and lawlessness." And 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.