Why the media ignored the Nashville flood

Thirty people died in the Cumberland River flood that inundated Nashville and other places in Tennessee, Kentucky, and Mississippi.  But, as we have complained on this blog, it barely made the news.  This, despite our three 24-hour cable news networks that one would think have lots of air time to fill.   Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz explores why, and, in doing so, makes the late Neil Postman’s point that the news is less about what happened and more about spinning entertaining stories:

The reasons are more complicated — and troubling — than Music City’s distance from the big media centers. Downtown Nashville was unfortunate enough to be under water while the news business was grappling with two other dramatic stories: the attempted bombing in Times Square and the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill. . . .

For the most part, says [Paul] Sellers, who works for NBC affiliate WSMV and lamented the lack of national coverage in a Huffington Post piece, “the cable networks have become issue machines. They love to cover something that has a right wing and a left wing that can argue it out.”

The New York Times sent a reporter to Nashville, but the story never made the front page. The Washington Post relied solely on the Associated Press. The Los Angeles Times used a staffer who did not travel to Tennessee. ABC, CBS and NBC sent correspondents whose pieces aired for a day or two on the morning and evening newscasts. Such reports often mentioned that the Opryland Hotel was under nearly 10 feet of water but had little time to explore the scope and texture of the human suffering. . . .

Unlike New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, there was no angry finger-pointing over the government’s response in Nashville; federal and local authorities were seen as quickly cooperating as the region struggled with power outages and water shortages. President Obama sent Cabinet members but chose not to visit himself, which would have brought the White House press corps to town.

“Nuances are lost when you do fly-in, fly-out reporting,” Silverman says of the coverage. In journalism, he says, “everyone wants to have a villain. But there are no villains yet, except for Mother Nature.” There was, however, intense hunger for information: Traffic at the Tennessean’s Web site, which averages 20,000 page views a month, soared to 44,000 page views in the first 12 days of May.

Newsweek’s Andrew Romano writes that the problem with the Nashville story was “the ‘narrative’ simply wasn’t as strong” as in the suspense-laden Times Square and BP dramas. “Because it continually needs to fill the airwaves and the Internet with new content, 1,440 minutes a day, the media can only trade on a story’s novelty for a few hours, tops. It is new angles, new characters, and new chapters that keep a story alive for longer.”

via - Howard Kurtz explores how oil spill, bombing news trumped Nashville flood.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Joe

    It makes me sick that an oil spill holds our attention so much more than floods that have decimated parts of a great city and killed 30 people.

  • Joe

    It makes me sick that an oil spill holds our attention so much more than floods that have decimated parts of a great city and killed 30 people.

  • Don

    Would to God the oil spill did hold our attention. But environmental disasters are easily ignored as “liberal” concerns. This spill not only is ruining God’s creation, it is causing and will cause enormous economic damage to thousands and thousands of people.

    More than 1,800 people were killed by Katrina.

  • Don

    Would to God the oil spill did hold our attention. But environmental disasters are easily ignored as “liberal” concerns. This spill not only is ruining God’s creation, it is causing and will cause enormous economic damage to thousands and thousands of people.

    More than 1,800 people were killed by Katrina.

  • http://mesamike.org Mike Westfall

    The Oil Spill that will probably cause economic damage to thousands and thousands of people is a good excuse, I’m sure, to pass legislation that will cause economic damage to millions of people.

  • http://mesamike.org Mike Westfall

    The Oil Spill that will probably cause economic damage to thousands and thousands of people is a good excuse, I’m sure, to pass legislation that will cause economic damage to millions of people.

  • http://www.missyween.com missy

    I so much appreciate your voice of wisdom and reason.
    The media isn’t providing us with a broad spectrum of good information, and we really have to get out and take a more active role in studying what’s critical and what isn’t. I think we just like having stories spoon fed to us, our culture is becoming more and more immature in this way.

  • http://www.missyween.com missy

    I so much appreciate your voice of wisdom and reason.
    The media isn’t providing us with a broad spectrum of good information, and we really have to get out and take a more active role in studying what’s critical and what isn’t. I think we just like having stories spoon fed to us, our culture is becoming more and more immature in this way.

  • Joe

    Don – nice completely irrelevant Katrina reference. And, I never said the oil spill is unimportant. I just think that 30 people having actually died is kind of a higher priority story than an oil spill that is not actually killing anyone as of right now.

  • Joe

    Don – nice completely irrelevant Katrina reference. And, I never said the oil spill is unimportant. I just think that 30 people having actually died is kind of a higher priority story than an oil spill that is not actually killing anyone as of right now.

  • DonS

    Don @ 2: How do you figure that the oil spill is being ignored? It has been a top news story since April 20 or so, when it happened. That is an incredible stretch in the world of news.

    News organizations like controversy, failure, and bad news. While the Tennessee floods were certainly bad news, and the deaths that resulted were tragic, there was no controversy, and no whining. The good citizens of Tennessee are just going about the business of picking up their lives and getting on with them. George W. Bush was not president, and unavailable for blame. So, the reporters have moved on.

  • DonS

    Don @ 2: How do you figure that the oil spill is being ignored? It has been a top news story since April 20 or so, when it happened. That is an incredible stretch in the world of news.

    News organizations like controversy, failure, and bad news. While the Tennessee floods were certainly bad news, and the deaths that resulted were tragic, there was no controversy, and no whining. The good citizens of Tennessee are just going about the business of picking up their lives and getting on with them. George W. Bush was not president, and unavailable for blame. So, the reporters have moved on.

  • Don

    That was mighty white of you, DonS.

  • Don

    That was mighty white of you, DonS.

  • DonS

    Don @ 7:

    What???

  • DonS

    Don @ 7:

    What???

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    So where did everyone get the notion that the news — much less TV news — is some kind of importance- or gravitas-meter? And even more than that, where did the idea come from that the death toll is the main factor in the algorithm for importance or gravitas?

    The media is a business, and like every other business, is subject to market demands. They get paid when more people consume their output, so they try to make their output as desirable as possible. This seems obvious to me, but you wouldn’t know it from this discussion here. So the media will not always cover the stories that are most “important”, much less the stories that you personally think are most “important”. Unless, of course, those “important” stories also happen to be the stories that will bring the most consumers. Those concepts are not the same.

    Floods are certainly noteworthy events, as they do not happen all that often, and they change the way a city looks and works for some period of time. But they don’t bring a lot of interesting angles to report. “The water crested at this-and-so high today. So many dead. Levees holding or not. So much millions in damage. Here’s some photos.” I mean, you try to think of what you could say about that for several days in a row. It’s not all that easy, and frankly, it wouldn’t be all that interesting to see — there’s only so many photos one can show of high water. That doesn’t mean it’s not important, least of all to those people.

    But where does the expectation come from that the nation should be covering your local calamity? That if the rest of the nation isn’t viewing your tragedy, it somehow means less? Did any of you read story after story about, for example, Oregon’s record unemployment, hunger issues, or school funding a few years back? I did, but I live here. I wouldn’t expect you to know or care about it, since it doesn’t affect you.

    The notion that some intrinsic notion of “importance” should guide our media leads, in my opinion, to the ridiculous, over-long coverage of celebrity deaths. Because, to many people, such things are important. Even though the fact that Michael Jackson is dead has almost no affect on my life. I wish, I wish that my local mainstream media covered what goes on at City Hall, because it does affect me and my daily activity. But that gets buried beneath a whole host of stories designed to scare me about living in my town, plus 5 minutes of puppies at the end.

    Joe (@5) said, “30 people having actually died is kind of a higher priority story than an oil spill that is not actually killing anyone as of right now.” Well, Joe, you must love the nightly TV news, because if someone’s died in my town, they’re covering it. But are deaths always that important to the city at large? Don’t most people complain about the “if it bleeds, it leads” tendency in news?

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    So where did everyone get the notion that the news — much less TV news — is some kind of importance- or gravitas-meter? And even more than that, where did the idea come from that the death toll is the main factor in the algorithm for importance or gravitas?

    The media is a business, and like every other business, is subject to market demands. They get paid when more people consume their output, so they try to make their output as desirable as possible. This seems obvious to me, but you wouldn’t know it from this discussion here. So the media will not always cover the stories that are most “important”, much less the stories that you personally think are most “important”. Unless, of course, those “important” stories also happen to be the stories that will bring the most consumers. Those concepts are not the same.

    Floods are certainly noteworthy events, as they do not happen all that often, and they change the way a city looks and works for some period of time. But they don’t bring a lot of interesting angles to report. “The water crested at this-and-so high today. So many dead. Levees holding or not. So much millions in damage. Here’s some photos.” I mean, you try to think of what you could say about that for several days in a row. It’s not all that easy, and frankly, it wouldn’t be all that interesting to see — there’s only so many photos one can show of high water. That doesn’t mean it’s not important, least of all to those people.

    But where does the expectation come from that the nation should be covering your local calamity? That if the rest of the nation isn’t viewing your tragedy, it somehow means less? Did any of you read story after story about, for example, Oregon’s record unemployment, hunger issues, or school funding a few years back? I did, but I live here. I wouldn’t expect you to know or care about it, since it doesn’t affect you.

    The notion that some intrinsic notion of “importance” should guide our media leads, in my opinion, to the ridiculous, over-long coverage of celebrity deaths. Because, to many people, such things are important. Even though the fact that Michael Jackson is dead has almost no affect on my life. I wish, I wish that my local mainstream media covered what goes on at City Hall, because it does affect me and my daily activity. But that gets buried beneath a whole host of stories designed to scare me about living in my town, plus 5 minutes of puppies at the end.

    Joe (@5) said, “30 people having actually died is kind of a higher priority story than an oil spill that is not actually killing anyone as of right now.” Well, Joe, you must love the nightly TV news, because if someone’s died in my town, they’re covering it. But are deaths always that important to the city at large? Don’t most people complain about the “if it bleeds, it leads” tendency in news?

  • http://carolmsblog.blogspot.com/ C-Christian Soldier

    didn’t bho state something like – ‘bitter clingers to their God and Guns’? –in reference to the Southerners?!!…
    these ‘folks’ aren’t perpetual VICTIMS created by the alinsky-ites—so –bho and the leftist msm have no time for….
    them – there- bitter clingers …
    C-CS

  • http://carolmsblog.blogspot.com/ C-Christian Soldier

    didn’t bho state something like – ‘bitter clingers to their God and Guns’? –in reference to the Southerners?!!…
    these ‘folks’ aren’t perpetual VICTIMS created by the alinsky-ites—so –bho and the leftist msm have no time for….
    them – there- bitter clingers …
    C-CS

  • Joe

    tODD – I don’t particularly like the nightly news at all. Maybe I am odd ball but I don’t watch the news to be entertained. I watch it (to the extent that I do) to be informed of important events in the area, nation and world. Call me crazy but a flood that dang near destroys a major US city and kills thirty people seems to me to be a pretty relevant piece of information that I want to know about.

    I don’t dispute that business issues/profit play a role in what ends up on the screen but I think it gets used as a self-justifying excuse. The news folks throw up what they think we want to see and then they justify their decisions by saying its what we want to see. There is never much actual discussion of how they know what they show us is what we want to see. Did they consider the extremely large number of hits the local Nashville newspaper websites were receiving? Did that factor into their decisions on what we want to see?

  • Joe

    tODD – I don’t particularly like the nightly news at all. Maybe I am odd ball but I don’t watch the news to be entertained. I watch it (to the extent that I do) to be informed of important events in the area, nation and world. Call me crazy but a flood that dang near destroys a major US city and kills thirty people seems to me to be a pretty relevant piece of information that I want to know about.

    I don’t dispute that business issues/profit play a role in what ends up on the screen but I think it gets used as a self-justifying excuse. The news folks throw up what they think we want to see and then they justify their decisions by saying its what we want to see. There is never much actual discussion of how they know what they show us is what we want to see. Did they consider the extremely large number of hits the local Nashville newspaper websites were receiving? Did that factor into their decisions on what we want to see?

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Joe (@11), I guess my first question would be: why is it important to you that Nashville is flooding and 30 people have died? How far does such importance extend? Do you want to know about all deaths in the world? Just those in a certain region? Just those over a certain number?

    I mean, I haven’t heard anyone here complaining about the lack of recent American coverage of the flooding in Poland and the Czech Republic. Last I heard, at least 5 people had died in that so far, and the flooding is still increasing. Myself, I wouldn’t care about this story, except for the fact that I’ve traveled to Kraków and other affected cities. But the story is only relevant to me inasmuch as I can lament what’s happened to a place that occupies a spot in my mind. Having never been to Memphis, I have less emotional resonance about the city.

    But all of that begs the question: is watching a disaster unfold actually relevant or useful information, no matter the impact it has on us emotionally? Obviously, it is if you happen to live in the area or have loved ones in the area — you want to know if certain things are open, or what you can do, or if people are okay. I would submit that’s a likely reason why the Nashville Web sites were slammed with traffic. If there were an earthquake in Portland, my family and our far-off relatives would all be swamping the Portland news sites, whether or not it became a national news story.

    “There is never much actual discussion of how they know what they show us is what we want to see.” What? You are aware of the TV ratings systems, yes, that measure audience share? How is that not us telling them what we want to see? If people wanted insightful stories about truly important things, with trenchant analysis, wouldn’t the market provide it to us (indeed, in some places, in some ways, it has; but almost never at the local news level)?

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Joe (@11), I guess my first question would be: why is it important to you that Nashville is flooding and 30 people have died? How far does such importance extend? Do you want to know about all deaths in the world? Just those in a certain region? Just those over a certain number?

    I mean, I haven’t heard anyone here complaining about the lack of recent American coverage of the flooding in Poland and the Czech Republic. Last I heard, at least 5 people had died in that so far, and the flooding is still increasing. Myself, I wouldn’t care about this story, except for the fact that I’ve traveled to Kraków and other affected cities. But the story is only relevant to me inasmuch as I can lament what’s happened to a place that occupies a spot in my mind. Having never been to Memphis, I have less emotional resonance about the city.

    But all of that begs the question: is watching a disaster unfold actually relevant or useful information, no matter the impact it has on us emotionally? Obviously, it is if you happen to live in the area or have loved ones in the area — you want to know if certain things are open, or what you can do, or if people are okay. I would submit that’s a likely reason why the Nashville Web sites were slammed with traffic. If there were an earthquake in Portland, my family and our far-off relatives would all be swamping the Portland news sites, whether or not it became a national news story.

    “There is never much actual discussion of how they know what they show us is what we want to see.” What? You are aware of the TV ratings systems, yes, that measure audience share? How is that not us telling them what we want to see? If people wanted insightful stories about truly important things, with trenchant analysis, wouldn’t the market provide it to us (indeed, in some places, in some ways, it has; but almost never at the local news level)?

  • Joe

    “What? You are aware of the TV ratings systems, yes, that measure audience share?”

    All this tells us is that we did watch something – it does not tell us why and it does not account for the fact that the system is not (in practice) open system. It just feeds into the same self-justification I wrote about above. For this to be an indication of what we actually want, there would actually need to be an alternative against which to measure it in the same medium. The networks and the cable channels pretty much play the same stories. The ratings merely bear out which network has done a better job of tricking us into thinking that they can deliver the exact same content everyone else is delivering in a better fashion. There is no real competition based on the choices of stories in television news. That is why ratings are based on market share as opposed to new viewers generated.

  • Joe

    “What? You are aware of the TV ratings systems, yes, that measure audience share?”

    All this tells us is that we did watch something – it does not tell us why and it does not account for the fact that the system is not (in practice) open system. It just feeds into the same self-justification I wrote about above. For this to be an indication of what we actually want, there would actually need to be an alternative against which to measure it in the same medium. The networks and the cable channels pretty much play the same stories. The ratings merely bear out which network has done a better job of tricking us into thinking that they can deliver the exact same content everyone else is delivering in a better fashion. There is no real competition based on the choices of stories in television news. That is why ratings are based on market share as opposed to new viewers generated.


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