The Antithesis of Looting #eqnz #nztv
The enthusiasm and alacrity with which the New Zealand media took up the alleged looting story in the immediate aftermath of the Canterbury earthquake was matched only by their reluctance to disown it when confronted with the boring truth.
Looting in the wake of natural disasters is a great news story. It is one of those narratives that some media outlets find too compelling to resist, notwithstanding the presence or absence of actual proof.
Looting is a spectacular act of bastardry. It repels us. The idea that some people are so malevolent that they would seek personal gain in the midst of tragedy is morally incomprehensible to the vast majority of humankind. This makes for juicy copy.
There is a lot of praise floating around for the New Zealand media’s coverage of the Canterbury earthquake. From from what I can see, little or none of it is deserved. A fair test for the reporting of a natural disaster is how effectively media outlets cover the story before they begin receiving media releases and background information from government agencies. (Reading out statements and asking no-brainer questions of government officials is hardly journalism). By that measure, the New Zealand media demonstrably failed. This is a complex subject, worthy of a thesis that I have neither the patience nor the inclination to write, but the looting story deserves attention. It is the shining turd atop the pile.
Let’s be clear, once and for all: there was no looting in Christchurch after the 7.1 magnitude earthquake hit the city in the early hours of Saturday morning. There is no dictionary in the world that defines looting so loosely that it would extend to two minor acts of vandalism by teenagers. Looting is serious and widespread by definition. You cannot have mild looting any more then you can have a slight massacre. In fact, we now know that there were fewer crimes reported in the hours after the quake than occur on an earthquake-free weekend. Yes, that’s right: less crime than average. Christchurch experienced the antithesis of looting.
This leads to several questions. First, what and how many sources did the media rely on when they first reported these false looting rumours? Second, what steps did they take to verify the rumours? Third, how soon after reporting the rumours did the media outlets discover them to be false? And fourth, why did it take so long to inform the rest of us?
Fundamentally, I don’t believe that news media outlets should report allegations of crimes such as looting without credible evidence to back them up. It could and did lead to needless fear and panic. However, in the teeth of an unfolding crisis, mistakes like this will be made.
What is less defensible is how long it took the media to categorically debunk the reports once the facts were established. TV3 was still repeating the rumours in its 6pm bulletin, many hours after the Christchurch police had laconically laid them to rest.
Before the news media commences an orgy of self-congratulation over their earthquake coverage, they should be held to account. Surely it is not their job stoke unwarranted anxiety, especially in times of disaster? And is it too much to ask that the media spend at least as much time quelling baseless rumours as they do amplifying them?