Hurricane Hugo and the San Francisco earthquake were both confined to isolated parts of the country. They affected only a tiny segment of the nation's population. For most of America, daily life went on as usual.

And yet, the events touched lives far beyond San Francisco and the Carolinas, because people experienced the disasters through the mass media. Whether highlighting acts of heroism, relaying someone's sorrow, or simply explaining what happened, the media brought us right into the tragedies.

A Fine Line

In their coverage of cataclysmic events as they are happening, the media have to walk a fine line: They must report the tragedy without exploiting private grief. It's a tough assignment. During both disasters, critics said the media acted insensitively, sensationalizing the human suffering.

Different media serve different functions in disaster situations. As Hurricane Hugo approached, for example, newspapers such as the Charleston Courier told people how to prepare for the storm and where to go for emergency shelters. During the hurricane, when power went down along the coast, inland radio stations beamed their signals into Charleston to keep people informed.

Then, after both disasters, the Courier and papers like the Oakland (California) Tribune told residents how to get emergency aid and file insurance claims. Meanwhile, the national media spurred the rest of the country to send assistance. The New York Times, for example, ran a listing of relief organizations that were accepting donations.

But too often, critics charge, the media exploit and even exaggerate disasters to gain readers and viewers. The initial earthquake coverage on TV angered Sylvan Fox, a journalism professor at New York University, whose daughter lives in Santa Cruz, near the quake's center.

None of the networks had correspondents in the area, and phone lines were down, so the networks had no information coming out of Santa Cruz. Because there was no information, Fox says, the media suggested that something catastrophic had happened when, in actuality, only five people were killed in a town of 40,000. "The inferential reporting that night was grossly irresponsible," he says.

Circus Atmosphere

In their rush for a hot story, the media can turn a disaster scene into a circus. Betty Medsger, professor of journalism at San Francisco State University, notes that all three network anchormen rode limousines to West Oakland, one of the area's poorest neighborhoods, to broadcast from the site of a collapsed highway.

"It was like a show," she says. "They were standing there with their hairdressers. To drive into a neighborhood that's just been destroyed in a long, white limousine is really tasteless and crude."

Some San Franciscans, like a few Carolinians before them, complained that unrelenting coverage made things seem worse than they were. Conversely, people in Oakland and Santa Cruz said the media did not focus enough on their areas.

Critics made a distinction between the action of the local and national media. "The local media are more personally involved because they have to live there," says William Drummond, associate dean of journalism for the University of California at Berkeley. "The same is not true for the networks. To them it was a sensational story with great pictures."

Experts say the media will always be drawn to disasters because of the public's interest in such events. By its very definition, "news" is the unusual or something that affects a large number of people, says University of Missouri journalism professor George Kennedy.

"People need to know what happened around them," he says. "And they need to know that even if things are falling down in front of them, that the world is still here."

Scholastic Update, December 15, 1989