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date: 27 February 2020

Mediatized Disasters in the Global Age: On the Ritualization of Catastrophe

Abstract and Keywords

This article examines how disasters become extensively and intensively enacted and performed within the news media. It first considers contemporary forms of media ritualization evident across a range of “exceptional” media phenomena, including moral panics and mediated scandals. It then explores how some of these different forms of media ritualization enter into and shape the public elaboration of major disasters, including the South Asian tsunami (2004), Hurricane Katrina (2005), and Cyclone Nargis in Burma and the Sichuan earthquake in China (2008). It also explains how ideas of cultural performance and media ritualization can help elucidate the ways that disasters are culturally made to mean and, importantly, politically matter in a globalizing world. It argues that mediatized disasters not only become communicated across extensive geographical distances but are also culturally intensified and rendered available for wider appropriation by diverse discourses and political projects—nationally, internationally, and globally.

Keywords: Disasters, news media, media ritualization, tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, Cyclone Nargis, Earthquake, cultural performance, moral panic, mediated scandals

When reporting disasters, a terrible “calculus of death” has seemingly become institutionalized and normalized in the professional judgments, practices, and news values of the Western news media. Based on crude body counts and news thresholds as well as proximities of geography, culture, and economic interests, this journalistic calculus recognizes some deaths, some disasters as more newsworthy than others (Galtung and Ruge 1981; Benthall 1993; Allen and Seaton 1999; Moeller 1999; Seaton 2005; Cottle 2009a). This also no doubt feeds into the Western “emergency imaginary,” a discerned cultural outlook that naturalizes distant human emergencies by seeing them as sudden and unpredictable and by dissimulating our Western standpoint of observation (Calhoun 2004, p. 376; 2008). But this professional calculus of death and Western imaginary do not exhaust the story of disaster reporting.1

The news media sometimes perform a more elaborate part in visualizing and even humanizing the suffering of distant others, positioning victims and survivors within a mediated ethics of care and variously alerting publics and power-holders to their plight (Cottle 2006a, 2009a; Chouliararki 2006; Pantti, Wahl-Jorgensen and Cottle forthcoming).2 Some disasters, as we shall discuss, are reported extensively and intensively, dramatically reliving moments of danger and loss and publicly channelling discourses of tragedy and trauma into appeals to imagined national community and international solidarity. When based on the perceived ineptitude of (p. 260) authorities and/or the failures of governments to act, some disasters can also be narrated in ways that highlight public anger and propel the possibility of political scandal. And yet others may even become full-blown moments of moral censure and international condemnation, as moral opprobrium is directed by the news media at political regimes with poor democratic credentials and human rights records now spotlighted in the world's media. When dramatized and visualized on the global news stage, then, some disasters seemingly have the potential to become “cosmopolitan events” (Beck 2006), globalizing emotions and encouraging a sense of a global collectivity and responsibility. But how exactly this is conducted in and through the news media warrants further thought and closer empirical engagement.

In such cases, the news media are doing more than simply reporting and representing disasters; they are performatively enacting them, constituting them on the public stage, and visualizing and narrating them in ways that can demand recognition and response. In such cases, the news media publicly enter into disasters and may even shape their subsequent course and conduct. They mediatize them. Sometimes, then, there is more cultural complexity (and political contingency) in mediatized disaster reporting than the pessimistic and generalizing accounts of the journalistic calculus of death and Western emergency imaginary seemingly permit. And, as we shall also see, culturally there is often more to disaster communications than the “communication of information” that disaster specialists hope will counter the mass mediated images of “passive victims” and assist “active survivors” to become self-help communities (Rodriquez, Quarantelli, and Dynes 2007, p. xviii).

From a sociological perspective, disasters represent the failures to deal with threats and hazards and are therefore contingent on the social structures, collective vulnerabilities, and power relations that both precede and mediate them, as well as the available resources allocated to their prevention, mitigation, and response (Rodriquez, Quarantelli, and Dynes 2007). As John Holmes, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, and Markku Niskala, Secretary-General of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, maintain: “There is no such thing as a natural disaster. Floods, hurricanes, cyclones, typhoons, heat waves, droughts, even non-climate-related events like earthquakes, are natural hazards. They become disasters only when they exceed a community's ability to cope” (Holmes and Niskala 2007, p. 2). Approached thus, disasters can be seen as profoundly social phenomena (Perry and Quarantelli 2007) and the news media are often singled out as centrally involved in their social construction. As Jonathan Benthall observed many years ago, “(T)he coverage of disasters by the press and media is so selective and arbitrary that, in an important sense, they ‘create’ a disaster when they decide to recognize it,” and he also noted how “such endorsement is a prerequisite for the marshalling of external relief and reconstructive effort” (Benthall 1993, pp. 11–12).

This chapter takes these social premises of disasters as given, but also argues for their cultural constitution in respect of how some disasters become extensively and intensively enacted and performed within the news media. When infused with symbols and meanings that emanate from both media and civil society, mediated (p. 261) disasters can command not only our attention but also, on occasion, our collective empathy and critical engagement. Here, ideas of cultural performance and media ritualization prove essential if we are to better fathom how disasters are culturally made to mean and, importantly, politically matter. In a world where humanitarian impulses and the institutionalization of human rights find wide normative if not universal assent, and in a globalizing world where disasters and crises are now becoming increasingly deterritorialized in terms of global origins and scope (Beck 2006, 2009), how the news media infuse disasters with cultural meanings can reverberate nationally, internationally, and transnationally (Cottle 2009a, 2009b). Through their performative enactment of some disasters, the news media both interact with and serve to instantiate the “civil sphere” (Alexander 2006a).3

The discussion that follows develops these claims across two sections. The first considers contemporary forms of media ritualization evident across a range of “exceptional” media phenomena, from moral panics and media events, to mediated scandals and mediatized public crises. When approaching disasters in terms of news performance and ritualization, there are already established and productive theoretical grounds on which to do so. The second part of the chapter then moves more empirically to illuminate how some of these different forms of media ritualization enter into and shape the public elaboration of major disasters, including the South Asian tsunami (2004), Hurricane Katrina (2005), and Cyclone Nargis in Burma and the Sichuan earthquake in China (2008). The performative nature of these media treatments reveals how disasters today can become variously inscribed with appeals to imagined community and/or international solidarity, discourses of criticism and dissent, and moral infusions rooted in the deep binaries of civil society. In such ways, mediatized disasters not only become communicated across extensive geographical distances but are also culturally intensified and rendered available for wider appropriation by diverse discourses and political projects—nationally, internationally, and globally.

Mediatized Rituals

When mediatized, disasters can be profoundly shaped in the communicative encounter with the news media and in ways that shape subsequent reactions and responses. There are however many possible roles or stances performed by the news media when mediatizing events whether that of “narrator,” “conductor,” “mediator,” “watchdog,” “advocate,” “campaigner,” or “champion” (Cottle 2004; Cottle and Rai 2006), just as there are diverse roles adopted by the news media in situations of conflict more generally (Wolfsfeld 1997). These moreover can modulate through time and in relation to the changing dynamics of the political center and/or surrounding movements for change (Hallin 1986; Bennett 1990; Butler 1995; Bennett, Lawrence, and Livingston 2007). They can also be enacted differently across different (p. 262) mediums, forms, and outlets (Elliott et al. 1986; Cottle 2004, 2011) and the media can sometimes demonstrate reflexivity in respect of the media's own performative “doing” (Cottle 2004).

How news media adopt and perform these differing stances has yet to find detailed comparative analysis. We know from the field of conflict studies, however, that both structural and cultural dimensions are likely to be at work (Wolfsfeld 1997; Cottle 2006a, pp. 13–32). The news media today occupy a pivotal site in the power plays of contending interests and identities that seek to mobilize discourses and harness frames to their goals (Cottle 2003). But the news media can also sometimes refashion cultural templates, narratives, and frames and grant news stories shape, form, and meaning (Cottle and Rai 2006). And, exceptionally, as already suggested, the news media can sometimes assume a steering role in the public definition and elaboration of events. It is in and through this institutionally mediated, strategically pursued, and normatively informed encounter between news media, state, and the discourses and projects of civil society, therefore, that meanings come to infuse and frame events. Though it is not possible to explore these complex fields of initiation and interaction here,4 the discussion can pursue how the news media place their cultural stamp on disasters, variously making them mean and politically matter. Ideas of media performance and media ritualization prove critical.

For heuristic purposes, I define mediatized rituals as “those exceptional and performative media enactments that serve to sustain and/or mobilize collective sentiments and solidarities on the basis of symbolization and a subjunctive orientation to what should or ought to be” (Cottle 2006b, 2008). Approached in these deliberately encompassing terms, mediatized rituals may make use of institutionalized ceremonies or formal rituals staged by authorities or others elsewhere, or they may be staged and enacted entirely within/by the media themselves. When reporting on institutional ceremonies conducted elsewhere however, to become a “mediatized ritual,” the media will be “doing” something more than simply reporting (Austin 1975); they will be performatively eliciting/encouraging collective solidarities based on ideas and feelings (collective sentiments) about how society should or ought to be.

Mediatized rituals today are far more differentiated, unpredictable, and politically contested or even disruptive than either functionalist or structured in dominance views of either media or ritual permit (Cottle 2004, 2005a). This flows, in part, from the news media's occupation of cultural space in the contours and contests of civil society, its professionalized obligations to the institutions and processes of governance, as well as its own logics and pursuit of corporate and competitive goals. In this context, James Carey's often quoted view of media rituals as “sacred ceremonies drawing people together in fellowship and commonality by the creation, representation, and celebration of shared even if illusory beliefs” (Carey 1989, p. 43) reads as a little too indebted to Durkheim's original “binding” and integrative formulation of ritual (Durkheim 1865 (1915), pp. 466–467; Giddens 1971; Lukes 1973; Thompson 1998). In today's complexly structured, culturally diverse, and politically contested societies, we need to situate our analysis of processes of ritualization in respect of a particular constellation of social relations at a particular moment in time and, (p. 263) importantly, to see these as often conflicted (Lukes 1975; Kertzer 1988), culturally informed, and, importantly, mediatized.

It follows that the organizing force of rituals need not always be consensual or uniformly inflected (Chaney 1986; Shils and Young 1956; Alexander 1988; Mihelj 2008), much less co-extensive with a singular collectivity resident behind national borders. A neo-Durkheimian reading of ritual as “society in action,” but one that sees “society” as itself an internally contested project and that therefore also anticipates the capacity to build particularized solidarities or “publics” (Jacobs 2000; Cottle 2004) through the discursive appropriation of sacred symbols and purposeful alignment of collective sentiments, provides the foundation for a more temporally dynamic and politically contested view of ritual—one that may even permit on occasion transformative possibilities (Cottle 2004; Alexander 2006ā, 2009). Today, “society in action” is often enacted in and through the media sphere.

The broad definition of mediatized rituals above, then, makes no prescriptions about whether they are essentially hegemonic or contested, spontaneous or pre-planned, or consensual or disruptive in terms of the prevailing social order. These are essentially empirical questions that are not usefully theoretically predetermined in advance. It is also important to recognize that though news performativity often exhibits considerable rhetorical force and expressive appeals, such crafted invitations only come alive—experientially, emotionally, subjunctively—when actively read by audiences/readerships who are prepared to commit to them as symbolically meaningful to them and who can accept the “solidarity” offered (Ryfe 2001). Deep-seated presuppositions about “justice,” “democracy,” and “fraternity” and ideas of the “good society” rooted in the civil sphere (Alexander 2006a) can all, for example, form the basis for such solidaristic appeals. Established ideas and conceptualizations of “moral panics,” “media events,” “media spectacles,” “mediated scandals,” and “mediatized public crises” all serve to underline the media's role(s) in the performative enactment and ritualization of different events, ideas that have relevance for understanding mediatized disasters and the ritualization of catastrophes. Let us briefly take each in turn.

Though Stanley Cohen didn’t frame his celebrated analysis of moral panics (Cohen 1972) in terms of mediatized ritual, his account resonates with Durkheimian ideas of ritual as “society in action.” The mobilization of collective fears and anxieties amplified and sensationalized by the media and focused in relation to a symbolic other—a folk devil—ultimately serves processes of societal control by policing collective moral boundaries. Moral panic theory, notwithstanding the extensive criticisms and refinements over the forty years or so since Cohen's seminal publication (e.g., Goode and Ben-Yehuda 1994; McRobbie 1994; Media International Australia 1997; Thompson 1998; Critcher 2003; Altheide 2009), continues to secure analytical purchase on an exceptional class of performative media reporting.

The conceptualization of “media events” (Dayan and Katz 1994) also builds on Durkheimian themes of ritual, with its account of how ceremonial and celebratory occasions of state can build hegemony through ritualized affirmation and integrative appeals to collectivity. Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz characterized media events (p. 264) as interruptions of broadcasting routines that are monopolistic, live, organized outside the media, preplanned and presented with reverence and ceremony that can electrify very large (TV-viewing) audiences. In these ways, media events are taken to integrate societies and evoke a renewal of loyalty to the society and its legitimate authority (pp. 4–9, italics in original). Different genres of media events, whether contests (the epic contests of politics and sports), conquests (charismatic missions), or coronations (the rites of passage of the great), are all essentially taken as serving to reconcile, rather than challenge or transform, the political status quo and thereby buttress hegemonic interests and the establishment. Nonetheless, we also know that some media events prove to be more conflictual than consensual, more challenging than hegemonic, more disruptive than integrative, and of longer duration and more media-propelled than Dayan and Katz's special case of “media events” seems to allow (see also Kertzer 1988; Chaney 1986, 1993; Emirbayer 2003). As Elihu Katz has presciently observed since: “Media events of the ceremonial kind seem to be receding in importance, maybe even in frequency, while the live broadcasting of disruptive events such as Disaster, Terror and War are taking centre stage” (Katz and Liebes 2007, p. 158).

Conflicted “media events,” according to John Fiske, are “sites of maximum visibility and maximum turbulence” (Fiske 1994, p. 7) and threaten, as in the O.J. Simpson case, the televised beating of Rodney King, and the Los Angeles “riots,” to bring to the surface normally subterranean conflicts within wider society (Fiske 1994; see also Hunt 1999). This focus on the conflicted nature of some major media events is productive. But the role of culture in such discursive contests is arguably short-circuited when directly related to the play of contending interests and ideologies, rather than as seen as exerting its own autonomy and conditioning impacts on the field of politics and play of power. These approaches to “media events” can also be questioned in that they generally fail to address the longer-term dynamics that propel some events and happenings, both scripted and unscripted, into becoming exceptional “media events” (Scannell 2001)—criticisms that can also be leveled at recent approaches to “media spectacle.”

Douglas Kellner (2003), building on Guy Debord's (1983) “society as spectacle” thesis, argues that media spectacle is becoming one of the organizing principles of the economy, polity, society, and everyday life. But notwithstanding criticisms of Debord's work for providing a “rather generalized and abstract notion of spectacle,” theorists of “media spectacles” too often offer a similar, totalizing theorization and one seemingly divorced from either considerations of political economy or the political play of strategic interests (Cottle 2006b, pp. 25–29; Compton and Comor 2007).

Whether approached in consensual (Dayan and Katz), conflicted (Hunt, Fiske), or spectacular (Kellner) terms, therefore, the discussion of “media events” has seemingly become a victim of its own success, suffering conceptual inflation and reduced analytical utility when generalized to such very different forms of media events. They each recognize nonetheless the exceptional and intensive nature of their respective media phenomena, including the subjunctive news orientation that (p. 265) embeds or elicits collective sentiments and appeals to imagined community. For a better grasp of the temporal, narrative, and cultural dynamics found within ritualized media events, however, we need to look elsewhere.

Studies of “mediated scandals” and “mediatized public crises” offer a more dynamic understanding of media performativity moving through time and, often, a sequential structure akin to Victor Turner's “social dramas” (Turner 1974, 1982). This frequently makes it difficult to predict final outcomes (Thompson 2002, pp. 72–73). Media scandals, for example, typically depend on revelations and claims that are followed up by further mediated disclosures and/or counterclaims that build to a climax and demand some form of socially or morally approved sanction. According to James Lull and Stephen Hinerman, “A media scandal occurs when private acts that disgrace or offend the idealized, dominant morality of a social community are made public and narrativized by the media, producing a range of effects from ideological and cultural retrenchment to disruption and change” (emphasis in original) (Lull and Hinerman 1997, p. 3).

As with the theorization of moral panics, media scandals are seen as invoking collective boundaries that serve to police perceived transgressions. They are also seen as highly symbolic “affairs” (figuratively or literally) that involve public performances designed to salvage institutional and/or personal reputations, trust, and legitimacy (see Carey 1998). As such, media scandals are essentially struggles of symbolic power. In their media enactment, collective solidarities are summoned and the media stage hosts public performances that variously make calls on imagined moral community. Interestingly, Lull and Hinerman make no prescriptive statement about the exact effects of media scandal because these can be variously integrative or disruptive, hegemonic, or transformative. Media scandals, however, also exhibit highly ritualized characteristics, invoking and/or reaffirming moral boundaries and idealized collective norms of behavior, and incorporating performative (evaluative) response to perceived transgressions.

Jeffrey Alexander and Ronald Jacobs’ conceptualization of “mediatized public crises” also provides a more dynamic approach to disruptive media enactments, and does so by theoretically distinguishing its understanding of cultural power from celebratory “media events”:

Celebratory media events of the type discussed by Dayan and Katz tend to narrow the distance between the indicative and the subjunctive, thereby legitimating the powers and authorities outside the civil sphere. Mediatized public crises … tend to increase the distance between the indicative and the subjunctive, thereby giving to civil society its greatest power for social change. In these situations, the media create public narratives that emphasize not only the tragic distance between is and ought but the possibility of historically overcoming it. Such narratives prescribe struggles to make “real” institutional relationships more consistent with the normative standards of the utopian civil society discourse.

(Alexander and Jacobs 1998, p. 28)

This is a sophisticated approach that both revises traditional Durkheimian views of ritual as necessarily binding collectivity and distances itself from neo-Marxist (p. 266) outlooks predisposed to view all public rituals as deterministically, instrumentally, and materialistically working in the service of hegemonic interests. As we can detect above, the analytical focus shifts to the performative, processual, and contingent nature of mediatized public crises and how the latent power of civil societies, rooted in widely held cultural presuppositions and normative horizons, can become mobilized within and through them (Alexander 2006a). Once the mediatized wheel of a public crisis begins to turn, public performances it seems are obligated, cultural scripts become resurrected, symbols are deployed, and “performing the binaries” gives shape, form, and cultural meaning to the myths and discourses of civil society (see below). Approached thus, mediatized public crises, from Watergate to the political fall-out from September 11, are theorized and conceptually explicated in terms of “cultural pragmatics,” “symbolic action,” and “ritual” (Alexander 1988, 2009; Alexander and Smith 2003; Alexander, Giesen, and Mast 2006).

Alexander is aware of the deep suspicions held by contemporary social theory toward the concept and efficacy of ritual in today's segmented and fragmented societies. Ritual fusion between social performance and group, he concedes, was more readily accomplished in earlier, less complex societies (Alexander 2006b) and historical processes of de-fusion have contributed to a more complex environment in which “the context for performative success has changed” (Alexander 2006b, p. 42).5 But ritual-like performances nonetheless continue to characterize social action in contemporary societies, including those staged in mediatized public crises—and they do so notwithstanding today's enhanced reflexivity toward the artifice of staged public performances.

For Alexander and colleagues working within this “strong programme in cultural sociology” (Alexander 2009; Alexander and Smith 2003; Alexander, Giesen, and Mast 2006), the possibility of re-fusion remains not only possible but also critical because “only if performances achieve fusion can they reinvigorate collective codes” (Alexander 2006b, p. 80). It is in such moments that the civil sphere comes alive, publicly instantiated in and through the communication of utopian discourses, and appeals to solidarity and the elaboration of wider “structures of feeling.” Cultural pragmatics, theorized as strategic or instrumental action that is necessarily conducted in and through wider cultural codes, symbolism, and meanings, is both conditioned by but also serves to instantiate something of the civil sphere when operating, as it must, “between ritual and strategy” (Alexander 2006a, 2006b, 2009). Here, then, the civil sphere is not conceived in Habermasian (1989) terms as a rational “public sphere” of deliberation that is allergic to the cultural, symbolic, and performative, but rather as the widely diffused and in-depth cultural values and myths that coalesce under the normative horizons of civil society. These periodically become mobilized in mediatized public crises and advanced on the basis of normative ideas and values of “justice,” “fairness,” “democracy,” or the “good society” or, indeed, their binary opposites when ascribed to the “enemies” of civil society.

As this brief review has sought to make clear, ideas of media performance and ritualization continue to register powerfully in the theorization and conceptualization of diverse “exceptional” events and their enactments in the news media. James (p. 267) Ettema, developing on Victor Turner's model of social dramas, put it eloquently when he said mass-mediated rituals are “more conceptually complex and politically volatile than the transmission of mythic tales to mass audiences” because they are “an important cultural resource both for waging and for narrating politics” (Ettema 1990, pp. 477–478; see also Elliott 1980; Wagner-Pacifici 1986; Alexander 1988; Jacobs 2000; Cottle 2004, 2005). Turner himself, of course, powerfully invited just such a politically dynamic view of ritual when elaborating how “social dramas” can produce moments of liminality and communitas outside of normal space and time. “I like to think of ritual essentially as performance, as enactment and not primarily as rules or rubrics,” he said, “The rules frame the ritual process, but the ritual process transcends its frame” (Turner, cited in Mitchell 1981, pp. 155–156; see also St. John 2008). The relevance of these ideas for better understanding how mediatized disasters are variously made to mean and politically matter can now be explored further.

Mediatized Disasters

This second part of the discussion moves to explore more empirically some of the ritualized forms and political dynamics that characterize mediatized disasters. We consider first the reporting deployed in the South Asian tsunami (2004) and how this embedded emotions of grief and empathy, invited public performances from elites and survivors, and variously invoked notions of imagined national community and international moral solidarity. We then consider how some mediatized disasters, exemplified here by Hurricane Katrina (2005), can unfold very differently across time and space, providing opportunities for elite framing as well as discursive contention and political dissent—whether on the national or international news stages or transnationally. And, finally, we briefly consider how Cyclone Nargis in Burma and the Sichuan earthquake in China (2008), both in the same month, became an opportunity for the news media to performatively compare and evaluate these two disasters and how they did so by invoking deep cultural binaries and infusing moral approbation and opprobrium into their public accounts of government actions and inactions. Though each of the above disasters was subject to extensive and intensive forms of media ritualization, each in fact became culturally constituted differently—with different political ramifications.

The South Asian Tsunami: Rituals of Solidarity

The South Asian tsunami of December 2004 was caused by an underground earthquake in the India Ocean off the coast of Aceh on the northern Indonesian island of Sumatra. The devastating waves led to massive destruction and an estimated loss of over 220,000 lives across coastal regions of Indonesia, Thailand, Burma, India, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Somalia, and Seychelles. The sheer scale of the (p. 268) loss of life, devastation, and multiple countries and regions affected positioned it as an unprecedented international disaster. At first, predictably perhaps, it became reported through geopolitical outlooks and the journalistic “calculus of death,” fixating on the ever-rising death toll, as these typical frontpage headlines illustrate:

“Deathwave. Death Toll 9,500 and counting. India 3,200” (The Indian Express, 27.12.04)

“Wave of Destruction. World's Biggest Earthquake for Forty Years Devastates Asia. Wall of Water 10 Meters High Inundates Popular Tourist Resort. Toll passes 7,500 with Sri Lanka, India and Indonesia the Worst Hit” (South China Morning Post, 27.12.04)

“Toll Tops 24,000 as Disease Fears Grow” (The Age, 28.12.04)

“Toll in Undersea Earthquake Passes 26,000. A Third of the Dead are said to be Children” (New York Times, 28.12.07)

“After the Destruction, The Grief. Tsunami Death Toll Climbs to 25,000, 30,000 Missing on Remote Indian Islands, Disease Fears as Huge Relief Effort Launched” (The Guardian, 28.12.04)

Among the calculations of death, however, newspapers also sought to provide background and analysis of what exactly had happened, many providing elaborate maps charting the course of the destructive waves and their devastating impact on different islands and coastal communities. Also prominent among this early coverage was a concerted effort to relay first-person accounts, bearing witness, and providing graphic testimonies of the death and destruction caused by the tsunami. News articles under first-person headlines such as the following were common: “How Paradise Turned to Hell” (The Age 27.12.04), “Suddenly We Heard This Loud Rumbling Noise” (The Guardian 27.12.07), and “I Was Being Swept Out to Sea, I Felt Afraid, Powerless” (The Indian Express, 27.12.04). In such prominently displayed, graphic testimonies, readers were invited to contemplate the destruction, fear and carnage of the event as experienced by survivors, and relived in the news media.

As time moved on, national newspapers reported on government relief responses. The Age, in Australia, for example, produced headlines such as: “Federal Aid Up by $35m ‘With More to Come’ ” (The Age 30.12.05) and “Canberra Steps Up Help for Indonesia” (The Age, 31.12.07). But it was the involvement of their own nationals, predominantly tourists killed and missing, that preoccupied the press in many countries such as Australia. “Fears Rise for Thousands of Missing Tourists” (The Age, 28.12.07), “A Jet Ski in the Lobby, A Shark in the Pool …” (The Age 28.12.07), “For a Ruptured Family, the Net Recovers a Toddler Believed Lost in the Waves”, “Holiday Trip Turns into Horror Ride” (The Age, 30.12.07), “Waiting and Hoping For a Phone Call That Never Comes” (The Age, 31.12.07). In such headlines, we hear not simply news interest in involved nationals, en masse, but the deliberate attempt to provide personalized stories and emotive accounts encouraging identification and empathy with the plight and suffering of their national victims. Everyday, taken-for-granted objects and technologies—mobile phones, computers, the Net, and even a jet ski incongruously found in a swimming pool (alongside a shark)—all help to relay added poignancy and gravitas in the aftermath of disaster, the visible signs of ordinary (p. 269) lives shattered, routine expectations turned upside down, and the desperate attempts to reconstitute normality and relocate lost loved ones.

Such news reporting certainly exhibits geopolitical outlooks and reveals the professional calculus of death at work but, as we can detect in such headlines, the press is also making a concerted effort to invoke something of the perceived human reality of these same events and their aftermath. It does so through the deliberate embedding of personal experiences and emotive accounts of the tragedy of lives cut short and families wrenched apart by the destructive force of nature. This performative enactment of “cultural trauma” was not naturalistically determined by the grievous social dislocation and rupture wrought by the tsunami itself, but rather by the performative interventions of the news media (see Alexander 2004). By crafted, journalistic means, the disaster became signified as a moment outside of normal time and space, a liminal period, constituted in the media through its intensive and extensive forms of news reportage and asserting both “communitas” and the reassertion of social “structure” (Turner 1982).

After the initial disaster and aftermath reports, reporters soon began to emphasize the bonds of community and solidarity born of adversity as well as sympathetic responses from distant countries and communities. In such ways, newspapers provided a moral infusion into the wasted human landscape, seeking out and celebrating the selfless and heroic acts of survivors and rescuers as well as publicizing collective forms of solidarity embodied in institutional relief efforts, charity donations, and the symbolic actions of elites. Collectively, such stories re-colonized space and place momentarily lost to the amoral (immoral) forces of nature anthropomorphized in the media in terms of “The Cruel Sea” (International Express, 4–10.1.05), “Deadly Sea, Brutal and Indiscriminate” (28.12.04), and “Nature's Fury” (The Courier Mail, 7.1.05).

This public valorization of moral community found expression through a succession of newspaper articles and features with headlines and captions such as: “Britain Unites to Help Victims,” “£1 Million Raised in One Hour After Tidal Wave Disaster,” “Generous Britons Pledge To Help Victims” (International Express, 4–10.1.05); “Friendship Blossoms in the Rubble, Indonesia, Australia Closer” (The Sydney Morning Herald, 5.1.05); “Aid Forges Closer Links,” “Generosity Worldwide Amazes UN,” and “We’re in For the Long Haul, Howard Tells Indonesians” (The Courier Mail, 7.1.05).

In the aftermath of catastrophic disasters, politicians and other elites are obliged to go on “media parade,” symbolically positioning themselves among the carnage and devastation, conducting walkabouts and meeting survivors, and commending emergency services and relief workers on their professionalism and heroic efforts—all in front of news cameras. The cultural pragmatics of disaster performances obligate that their public deportment must conform to the known cultural scripts of how to behave in times of grief and human loss, though their exact execution remains a possible source of public opprobrium (de-fusion) if perceived by the viewing public to be disingenuous or simply too “staged.” In such moments, then, elites are obliged to publicly demonstrate their personal concern as well as active (p. 270) agency in “taking charge” and restoring normality. These symbolic images encode relations of social hierarchy and power at the same time as they proclaim to represent collective solidarity and community compassion. Ordinary people, as we have heard, are also afforded enhanced news presence in the preferred personae dramatis of mediatized disasters and allocated moral roles and established cultural scripts. An article headlined “Reluctant Angel of Patong Dives into Hell” (The Courier-Mail, 7.1.05), for example, commends and discursively constructs the selfless actions of a young Australian woman who returned to the scenes of devastation to help. She becomes publicly sacralized as a “reluctant angel,” a signification reinforced through her voluntary entry into “hell.” As Pantti and Wahl-Jorgensen observe in their study of disaster emotions, “The shift of focus from the sufferers to the heroes allows the rhetorical shift from despair to hope and national pride” (Pantti and Wahl-Jorgensen 2007, p. 14).

As time passed, further opportunities presented themselves for the ritualization of catastrophe through public ceremonies of remembrance—both religious and secular. For many people, such religious and civic rituals are principally enacted within and through the news sphere: “Let Us Pray: A Nation Stops to Remember” (Sunday Telegraph, 16.1.05); “They Are Not Alone: Australia Stops in Sorrow, In Fraternity” (Sydney Morning Herald, 15–16.1.05). Here, the news media did not hold back in its efforts to craft powerful visual frontpages in international solidarity, and ones encoded with suitable reverence and emotions for such ritual occasions. Images of bereaved children, mothers, and wives served to symbolize the victims of the tragedy and became positioned as the focal image around which an imagined nation was summoned and seemingly united as a moral community in sympathy and grief. For example, a particularly memorable image comprised an unusually aestheticized, not to say angelic, portrait of a mother and child survivor—evidently a carefully choreographed image and in stark contrast to earlier “raw” newspaper photographs of mangled bodies and people in distress (Sydney Morning Herald 15–16.1.05). In comparison to these earlier “victim” scenes, the depicted image provides by far a more dignified, even reverential, view of the “survivor” as subject, and one more fitting to the projected ritual occasion.

In such aesthetic, affective, and emotionally laden ways, then, the tsunami became heavily ritualized by the press and was subject to the discourses and sentiments, performances and symbols, rhetoric and ideals of national collectivity and moral community. A more in-depth examination of the tsunami and its news reportage around the world would also no doubt detect important differences between national and regional contexts, reflecting differences of geopolitical outlooks and national cultures (see Robertson 2010). Such an analysis would also find evidence for less than fully harmonious or integrative forms of media coverage. Some points of narrative disruption would include, for example, the British press criticisms leveled at British Prime Minister Tony Blair for remaining on vacation when his leadership was seemingly demanded at home; the controversy surrounding some relief agencies that requested the public desist from making donations given the unprecedented funds already collected for emergency relief; media scares (p. 271) about trafficking and the prostitution of orphaned children; as well as the failure of countries in the tsunami region to install early warning systems.

Dissent and disagreement, then, certainly surfaced in the media's treatments of the tsunami, but this at most assumed a muted aspect when set against the generally integrative tenor of the reporting of the tsunami and its ritualization of collective grief and inscriptions of moral community described above. Here, the media powerfully and performatively resurrected “known” cultural scripts of disaster and populated their images and discourses with roles and responsibilities deemed appropriate to the moral drama and its sequencing through discernible stages of disruption, crisis, response, and the reconstitution of social and moral order. Not all mediatized disasters, however, occasion such consensual and integrative forms of news ritualization.

Hurricane Katrina: Disaster Myths and the Ritualization of Dissent

Some disasters, evidently, do not always lend themselves to rituals of national integration and solidarity based on the public elaboration of emotions and consensual values, but become the site for discursive contention and even political dissent. News reporting of Hurricane Katrina illustrates a powerful case in point. In their analysis of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and New Orleans Times-Picayune coverage, Kathleen Tierney and colleagues (2006) document how media reporting perpetuated the “disaster myth,” the idea that under such circumstances survivors panic, social order breaks down, and a state of chaos and lawlessness ensues that requires a law-and-order or even a military response. In fact, argue Tierney, Bevc, and Kugligowski, disaster situations in the United States and elsewhere are known to generate altruistic social behaviors and group bonding as people try to organize and help each other under abnormal and adverse conditions—a point generally borne out in the expert literature on disasters (see Rodriguez, Quarantelli, and Dynes 2007). This, however, was most definitely not the image portrayed by the U.S. press:

Chaos gripped New Orleans on Wednesday as looters ran wild …. Looters brazenly ripped open gates and ransacked stores for food, clothing, television sets, computers, jewelry, and guns. (The New York Times, 1.9.05)

Things have spiraled so out of control (in New Orleans) that the city's mayor ordered police officers to focus on looters and give up the search and rescue efforts. (The Washington Post 1.9.05)

These and many other examples provided by the authors demonstrate the general news framing of the aftermath situation in terms similar to riot reporting. As the authors say, “The distinction between disasters and urban unrest is an important one” but this did not hinder the news media's sensationalizing rumors, innuendo, and unsubstantiated claims including, for example, the widely reported claims of multiple murders, child rape, and people dying of gunshot wounds in the Superdome where survivors had taken refuge. Though later found to be groundless, these news reports had accepted such claims, say the authors, because they were consistent with (p. 272) the media frame that had characterized New Orleans, to use a press headline of the time, as “the snakepit of anarchy” (Tierney, Bevc, and Kugligowski 2006, p. 68).

Over time this “civil unrest” frame gave way to an “urban war zone” frame that inevitably supported a militarized response. Curfews and a suspicious view of survivors’ movements around the city inhibited neighborhood residents helping one another and also led officials to ignore the possibility of working with survivors to deliver assistance. Emergency responses became diverted to law enforcement, jeopardizing the lives of the hurricane survivors. News media images of looting and lawlessness may also have caused organizations outside the region to hesitate before committing resources and help. And the racial divides of U.S. society are also likely to have become further entrenched on the basis of the news media's stereotypical portrayal, a finding supported by pubic attitude surveys after the worst of the disaster. On the basis of this detailed analysis, Tierney and her colleagues propose that “Hurricane Katrina may well prove to be the focusing event that moves the nation to place more faith in military solutions for a wider range of social problems than ever before” (Tierney, Bevc, and Kugligowski 2006, p. 78; see also Klein 2007).

However, both the mainstream media in the United States and international media also gave vent to a wider array of discourses and emotions surrounding Hurricane Katrina, not all of which supported elite interests and the disaster frames described above. Criticisms of city officials, failed evacuation plans, inadequate relief efforts, and the seeming abandonment of some of the poorest people in American society to their fate as well as the militarized response to the aftermath also became voiced in the news media. Then U.S. President George Bush was targeted by some as the source of blame; others suggested that Hurricane Katrina exposed the normally invisible inequalities of “race” and poverty in American society. Hurricane Katrina, then, became an opportunity for political appropriation by different projects and discourses.

Unlike the principle of broadcast ceremonies that, according to Tamar Leibes, “highlights emotions and solidarity and brackets analysis,” the “shared collective space created by disaster time-out, zooming in on victims and their families, is the basis not for dignity and restraint but for the chaotic exploitation of the pain of participants” and “the opportunistic fanning of establishment mismanagement, neglect, corruption, and so on” (Liebes 1998, pp. 75–76; see also Kyriakidou 2008). In the aftermath of Katrina, the U.S. president was forced to publicly try and offset the mounting criticism of his lackluster response, inadequate disaster planning, and lack of resources made available by his political administration. Other federal officials such as Michael Brown, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), also became singled out for public criticism as claims of incompetence, fanned by the media, circulated and effectively undermined George Bush's initial commendation of government officials for “doing a great job.”

Hurricane Katrina not only played out in the U.S. press however, but also in the world's press and other media. The BBC online news website, for example, positioned itself as a portal for world opinion, exhibiting opinion pieces from America and around the world and providing hyperlinks to some of the world's press. It is (p. 273) instructive to examine just a few of these different voices found in the world's press and reproduced on the BBC's webpage:

Bush is completely out of his depth in this disaster. Katrina has revealed America's weaknesses: its racial divisions, the poverty of those left behind by its society, and especially its president's lack of leadership.

—Phillipe Grangereau in France's Liberation

The biggest power of the world is rising over poor black corpses. We are witnessing the collapse of the American myth. In terms of the USA's relationship with itself and the world, Hurricane Katrina seems to leave its mark on our century as an extraordinary turning point.

—Yildrim Turker in Turkey's Radikal

Hurricane Katrina has proved that America cannot solve its internal problems and is incapable of facing these kinds of natural disasters, so it cannot bring peace and democracy to other parts of the world. Americans now understand that their rulers are only seeking to fulfill their own hegemonic goals.

—Editorial in Iran's Siyasat-e Ruz

Co-operation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions can no longer be delayed, but there are still countries—including the US—which still do not take the issue seriously. However, faced with global disasters, all countries are in the same boat. The US hurricane disaster is a “modern revelation,” and all countries of the world including the US should be aware of this.

—Xing Shu Li in Malaysia's Sun Chew Jit Poh

This tragic incident reminds us that the United States has refused to ratify the Kyoto accords. Let's hope the US can from now on stop ignoring the rest of the world. If you want to run things, you must first lead by example. Arrogance is never a good advisor.

—Jean-Pierre Aussant in France's Figaro

Hurricane Katrina will bury itself into the American consciousness in the same way 9/11 or the fall of Saigon did. The storm did not just destroy America's image of itself, but also has the power to bring an end to the Republican era sooner than expected. America is ashamed.

—Michael Streck in Germany's Die Welt

Katrina is testing the US. Katrina is also creating an opportunity for world unity. Cuba and North Korea's offer of sympathy and aid to the US could also result in some profound thinking in the US, and the author hopes that it will not miss the opportunity.

—Shen Dingli in China's Dongfang Zaobao

As we can see, differences of geopolitical interests and cultural outlooks clearly register in these very different national views from around the world and here relayed on the global media stage—but all normatively informed by and appealing to the moral horizons of an expanded transnational civil sphere. The exposure of America's continuing racial divides and depth of poverty for some sullied its projected international image as a “free democracy.” Countries normally regarded as political pariahs or as economic supplicants by the U.S. government turned the tables and (p. 274) offered their support to the world's mightiest power in its evident failure to respond to its home-grown humanitarian disaster. And yet others took the opportunity to make the connection to climate change and the irony of the U.S. position of not having signed on to the Kyoto treaty. Indeed, such was the mounting criticism played out in the news media that commentators even began to speak of George Bush's “Katrinagate.” But, as we have also heard, the part played by some sections of the U.S. media in circulating myths of urban warfare both nationally and internationally undermines a generalized argument about the U.S. media regaining its critical independence and acting as a collective political watchdog. Still, the world press's reporting on Hurricane Katrina undoubtedly provided a diverse range of nationally inflected responses circulated and available via webpages and the so-called blogosphere that infused information on, criticisms about, and much-needed insider accounts into the chaos and confusion of Hurricane Katrina (Allan 2006, pp. 156–165; Robinson 2009).

In such ways, Hurricane Katrina was extensively and intensively mediated around the globe, reverberating across the wider geopolitical field and becoming infused with diverse discourses and political projects. Contrived, satirical images of George H. W. Bush and his son fishing from a rowing boat in the flooded streets of New Orleans or singing to the distraught residents seeking sanctuary in the Super Bowl stadium also circulated on the Internet ( and and gave expression to the mounting political skepticism toward the presidency of George Bush and his administration's inept handling of the Katrina disaster and, possibly more so, the transparency of his cultural performances designed to regain the political initiative and moral high ground.

Cyclone Nargis and the Sichuan Earthquake: Performing Moral Opprobrium and Approbation

Cyclone Nargis hit the Burmese coast on May 2, 2008, with winds in excess of 120 mph. The resulting tidal waves and flooding caused devastation across much of the Irrawaddy delta and killed an estimated 138,000 people, leaving 2.4 million people destitute. The Burmese junta refused permission for overseas aid workers to gain access to some of the worst affected areas and communities, prompting widespread international condemnation. Ten days later on May 12, a devastating earthquake shook Sichuan province of China. An estimated 87,000 people died, including many schoolchildren killed beneath collapsing school buildings, with up to 5 million people made homeless. The Chinese authorities’ response was also subject to explicit commentary (possibly encouraged by China's hosting of the Olympic Games later that year), but unlike the Burmese junta, the Chinese regime and its disaster response were often praised in the media.6

Both the temporal proximity of these two disasters, as well as the different responses by the Burmese and Chinese authorities to the plight of their people, led to explicit comparative evaluations. This was given cultural shape and form, and added political charge, by the news media's performative invocation of deep cultural (p. 275) binaries rooted in normative views and moral precepts about how governments “are meant to behave” or “should respond” to the humanitarian needs of their populations. As we have heard, the civil sphere can be conceived of not only as an arena for information conveyance and deliberation but also as a cultural space “where actors and events become typified into more general codes (e.g. sacred/profane, pure/impure, democratic/antidemocratic, citizen/enemy)” (Alexander and Jacobs 1998, pp. 29–30). The following BBC news report, first broadcast on BBC television news and then transcribed and made available at the BBC website, was representative of many such news reports at the time. Here, it serves to demonstrate perfectly this journalistic moralization of events, encoded in and through its “thick descriptions” (Cottle 2005b) and purposeful “performing of the binaries” (Alexander 2006a). Consider first the opening sequence with its crafted, visceral bodily “descriptions” of these two disasters:

Burma and China: Tale of Two Disasters

The BBC's Paul Danahar reported on the aftermath of the cyclone in Burma before flying to China to cover the Sichuan earthquake. Here he compares the two disasters, and the response from both governments.

It is the stench of death that distinguishes these two disasters. It still blows across the vast flooded plains of the Irrawaddy delta. It is not a faint smell that slowly creeps up on you. It just suddenly hits you in the face, filling your mouth and nose, smothering your senses.

And it assaults those in the delta even now, more than two weeks after the cyclone smashed into the coastline.

But in Sichuan province, in neighbouring China, the air is still breathable. Death is being swept away. Corpses are being collected and buried. Families, where possible, are receiving the grim comfort of a body to grieve over; a ritual to mark the passing of a loved one; a point from which to try to rebuild what remains of their lives.

In Burma the bodies of many of those lost in the cyclone receive attention only from the birds. Five days into the earthquake in China, the trucks of aid and relief supplies were too many to count. At the same stage in Burma I counted only two. That was during a whole day of traveling along the main highway into the delta from the former capital Rangoon.

Building on these bodily/sensory accounts and perceptions, the report next both contextualizes and historicizes the different approaches of the two regimes to offers of international assistance, and thereby further moralizes their different actions and inactions toward the humanitarian plight of their citizens.

Aid Void

In Burma people sat in the wreckage of their homes. Bloated, rotting corpses floated around the rivers and inlets. Often help was not on the way. The generals in Burma chose not to save lives. It was their decision to make. They could not control the cyclone, and they could not cope with the disaster. But they still controlled borders and, as they have for decades, they thumbed their noses at influence from the outside world. Even when, in this case, that influence was undisputedly for the good of their people.

(p. 276) China was once like this. Thirty-two years ago the government of Chairman Mao reacted in the same way after the Tangshan earthquake, close to the capital Beijing. At least 250,000 people died. Under-resourced and overwhelmed by the natural calamity, the government of China literally buried the evidence of their incompetence. In a phrase echoed recently by Burma's military junta, they announced the beginning of reconstruction before the relief effort had really begun. Bulldozers consigned the true scale of the disaster to the speculation of future historians.

Finally, the report explicitly declares its informing political evaluation and moral verdicts on the two regimes—persuading, perhaps compelling its audience to do likewise.


The Chinese reaction this time could not be more different. It has been a model of disaster relief. There have been recriminations about why so many buildings, particularly schools, collapsed so easily. There are accusations that corrupt local officials conspired with unscrupulous builders to construct structures that turned into death traps. But there is a distinction that must be made in modern China between the local administrations and the central government. For while some local officials may prove to have blood on their hands, the Chinese government has done all that could be expected of it.

The generals in Burma find themselves accused of an “inhuman” response to their disaster, bordering on a “crime against humanity”.

In contrast China has found itself in the unusual position of being showered with international praise, both for its reaction to the disaster and the openness with which it has allowed the details to be reported. The government of modern China has thrown in every resource at its disposal and it has been prepared to have its efforts judged openly. And, unlike the generals across the border, they have nothing to be ashamed of.7

As we can clearly see, read, and possibly feel across this BBC news report crafted at the height of the news coverage of the Burmese cyclone, the comparison of these two disasters is structured around powerful binary contrasts. These are at work, ascribing cultural meanings and moral evaluations and effectively purifying and polluting the public standing of the two political regimes and their respective actions. Binary oppositions are often most powerfully at work, say Alexander and Jacobs, when “contrasts between purifying and polluting motives, relations, and institutions permeate news accounts linking the presuppositions of civil society to the ongoing rush of social events” (Alexander and Jacobs 1998, pp. 29–30). In this case, the venal, uncaring, corrupt, and essentially inward-looking and inhuman regime of Burma is simultaneously denounced as it is described, and in terms that are the mirror image of the reportedly administratively competent, publicly oriented, well-organized, and, increasingly, internationally responsive and socialized Chinese state. As the BBC report concludes: “Unlike the generals across the border,” the government of modern China “has nothing to be ashamed of.”

In such morally infused terms, the deep cultural binaries of the “civil sphere” are not simply at work as unspoken or taken-for-granted cultural assumptions (p. 277) that inform the journalist's story. They are, in fact, actively narrated, enacted, and performed, granting structure, sense, and meaning to these twinned disasters and enabling moral judgments—opprobrium and approbation—to publicly pollute and purify the key protagonists involved. When mediatized in such morally infused “thick descriptions,” in such crafted forms of journalism, “civil society becomes organized around a bifurcating discourse of citizen and enemy” and this contributes a powerful classificatory and evaluative dimension to public discourse (Alexander and Jacobs 1998, p. 30). This can powerfully condition the context and opportunities for political action.


The scale of death and destruction or the potentially catastrophic consequences of major threats and disasters, we know, are no guarantee that they will necessarily register prominently in the world's news media. So-called forgotten disasters, hidden wars, and permanent emergencies still abound in the world today and, because of their media invisibility, often command neither wider recognition nor political response. But we have also seen how the news media are capable on occasion of staging and narrating crises in ways that serve to invest them with emotional and cultural resonance, forcing them into the public eye and appealing to identities of moral community and ideas of the public good.

When mediatized, some disasters, as we have seen, become performatively enacted and ritualized in the world's news media, reverberating powerfully outward beyond the immediate scenes of death and destruction. Some are represented with awe and symbolism, and embedded with emotion and appeals to community. Others become opportunities for dissent and criticism with authorities and institutions rendered politically vulnerable by the tragedy, trauma, and emotions that are publicly played out on the media stage. And some mediatized disasters may even serve to expand moral horizons and boundaries of the “civil sphere” (Alexander 2006a) when deep cultural meanings (binaries) rooted in the presuppositions of civil societies are attached to events and institutions, agents, and their motives in faraway places. On these occasions, a universe of moral as much as political evaluation comes into public view.

This discussion, then, has pointed to a more variegated and expressive range of mediatized responses to disaster than is often countenanced by established social science approaches, whether framed through generalizing accounts of the professional calculus of death or Western hegemonic power, or indeed by disaster communication specialists preoccupied with processes of disaster cognition and information flows. Drawing on ideas of cultural performance, symbolic action, and ritual under an encompassing heuristic of mediatized rituals, the discussion has sought to illuminate some of the culturally expressive forms of mediatized disasters and how these (p. 278) can support differing political responses. Clearly, more detailed analysis of these and other mediatized disasters is now needed if we are to better understand the differentiated, performative and ritualizing responses of the news media to select disasters around the world. And we also must attend more closely to processes of mews mediatization in interaction with the field of surrounding institutional interests and discourses of civil society. But even this limited empirical engagement has begun to discern how news media can performatively enact and ritualize disasters quite differently, thereby making them culturally mean and politically matter.

Major disasters are now on the increase (Oxfam 2009) and in a globalizing world they are destined to become ever more deterritorializing in nature, scope, and outcomes. Inevitably, this will grant increased centrality and importance to global media systems and communication networks (Cottle 2009b). Situated in global context, mediatized disasters speak to our global age and the extent to which disasters and misfortunes in one part of the globe are recognized and responded to in another. Disasters are no longer confined within or behind national borders; they have become a litmus test for the wider, transnational field of humanitarian and political responses. Mediatized disasters offer perhaps one of the ways in which “spaces of our emotional imagination have expanded in a transnational sense” (Beck 2006, pp. 5–6) but, as we have begun to see, their different forms of cultural expression challenge easy claims that they will necessarily produce “cosmopolitan pity which forces us to act” (Beck 2006, p. 6). (See also Höijer 2004; Kyriakidou 2008.) To better understand the complexities of empathy and engagement, politics and pity that are variously summoned through mediatized disasters, we need to better understand how some disasters become performatively enacted in the world's news media. We need to understand how they are culturally made to mean and how, potentially, this makes them politically matter.


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(1.) This chapter draws on the author's previous publications on mediatized rituals and disaster reporting, including Cottle 2004, 2005a, 2006a, 2008, 2009a, 2009b.

(2.) For an in-depth and theoretically acute account of how different types of television news items variously encode different “regimes of pity” or appeals to compassion, see Chouliaraki 2006, and for more in-depth study and discussion of processes of audience reception with respect to “compassion” and “disasters,” respectively, see Höijer (2004) and Kyriakidou (2008). This discussion deliberately pitches its sights more widely on mediatized disasters approached as an exceptional class of performative media enactments that are narrativized over time and that can variously construct disasters as national events, cosmopolitan moments, or political opportunities for dissent and change.

(3.) Ideas of performance and performativity, whether those developed in the fields of linguistics and language studies (Austin 1956/1975), symbolic interactionist sociology (Goffman 1959), anthropology and ethnography (Turner 1969, 1974, 1982; Geertz 1992; Hughes-Freeland 1998; Schieffelin 1998), or gender and identity studies (Butler 1990), invite us to move beyond the referential or “constantive” (Austin 1975) level of communication and consider how, respectively, words, social encounters, culture, and identity are performed and are thereby “doing” something, and invariably doing so with an awareness of an audience (Bakhtin 1986; Carlson 1996).

(4.) A good place to start such an exploration would be the theorization of source fields and news access (Cottle 2003). The field of journalism occupies a pivotal site in the communication of culture and conflicts and in relation to the surrounding views and voices that contend for media influence, representation, and participation. Who secures media access, and how, inevitably raises fundamental questions about the nature of media participation and performance and the play of power transacted between the news media, government, corporations, and wider civil society. To date, researchers working within the sociological paradigm have tended to forefront media-source interactions in terms of strategic framing and definitional power, examining patterns of news access, routines of news production, and processes of source intervention, and how each conditions the production of public knowledge. Researchers working within a culturalist paradigm, on the other hand, have tended to theorize news access in terms of cultural representation, and are sensitized to the symbolic role of news actors and how these are positioned according to the conventions of news—story, narrative, form—and thereby help contribute to and sustain wider cultural myths that resonate within popular culture. While the sociological paradigm encourages us to look at the role of strategic power in the public representation of politics (broadly conceived), the culturalist paradigm invites us to see how cultural forms and symbols are implicated within the politics of representation (more textually conceived). However, a third approach both incorporates and, in part, departs from the previous two, and this examines communicative power by attending to the dynamics and contingencies of source-media interactions, cultural performances, and engaged media encounters sensitized to the communicative architecture of journalism and its communicative modes of “display and deliberation” (Cottle and Rai 2006). In such ways, the study of source fields and contention promises to overcome traditional paradigmatic approaches and may yet serve to better ground a more holistic cultural sociology of news media-source interactions, and one that is of use for the comparative exploration and explanation of mediatized disasters (Cottle 2003, 2006b; see also Alexander 2006a, pp. 293–391, 2006b).

(5.) Major processes of de-fusion identified by Alexander include: (1) the separation of written foreground texts from background collective representations, (2) the estrangement of the means of symbolic production from the mass of social actors, and (3) the separation of the elites who carried out central symbolic actions (Alexander 2006b, p. 45).

(6.) In fact, the potential for critical media framing and even media-propelled scandal was also obtained in the Sichuan earthquake, where the parents of children killed in collapsed school buildings blamed local officials and corruption for the construction of deficient school buildings. But this did not fit comfortably with the preferred overarching frame guiding the Western news media's comparative moral evaluation of the Chinese and Burmese authorities.