Why Audiences Latch Onto Some Disaster Stories And Quickly Forget Others

Jul 13, 2018

After days of breathless waiting, people around the world watched as 12 boys and their soccer coach trapped in a flooded cave in Thailand were rescued by military divers.

The story captivated audiences for weeks. But other concurrent disasters, like deadly flooding in Japan and the wreck of a tourist boat off the Thai coast, received less attention.

Here & Now‘s Robin Young talks with Christine Muller, assistant professor of American studies at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania, about why some stories seem grab audiences more than others.

Interview Highlights

On what makes us follow events like the Thai cave rescue

“I think what is standing out about these situations is, they are unfolding events. We are able to know that something very difficult is happening as it begins. Often our news stories are telling us something that happened after something very difficult is already over. So, a flood has already devastated a village, or an earthquake has already happened. And in these cases, I think that it is very compelling to try to find out what will happen to these people, and over the time that it takes to come to that conclusion, we really get drawn into to care about those people and we want to know what will happen, and certainly we come to want it to be a positive outcome.”

On why some stories don’t receive as much attention

“I think what is especially difficult is to first of all overcome some of the obstacles that certainly happen in terms of attracting global attention. We each in our respective cultures, our nations, come to identify more strongly with people who are similar to us. That can be an obstacle at times. Certainly within the United States, we consider ourselves often identified racially or religiously or by sexuality. When we do that, it sometimes can be very difficult to see other people who are not like us and feel an affinity for them or an understanding of them as being very like ourselves, and sympathy and compassion and empathy have to really come from a recognition of similarity. I think in this case, what the boys were doing was something really ordinary: kids on their team with their coach are going on a trip through some caves that people do go through.

“It’s also not particularly culturally specific, that children are already understood to be vulnerable, to be dependent on others. And so the idea that one of them was celebrating a birthday, and they had snacks to help them celebrate that — we can immediately kind of access how difficult that could be, how scary. I think that was a ready way to connect to people across the globe.”

On the language people sometimes use to frame these stories

“I think there’s a certain mechanism of protection: ‘If I can assure myself that those people are not like me, they made choices different than I would have made, so whatever happens to them, that was a choice they made’ — it’s easier for you to handle the fact that life itself is risky. And so there’s also a thread of protection, that it’s just going to be easier to be able to say, ‘That person did something that I wouldn’t have chosen to do, so I’m OK, I’ll be safe and they entered a space where the choices they have made have led them to the outcomes that they get.’ There is a rich area within the field of psychology that talks about our basic, fundamental cultural assumptions and how we understand how the world works. And again, there’s a certain protective factor: It’s easier to think that we have much more agency than sometimes we actually do.”

On the importance of humanizing and personifying those who are enduring a disaster or are the focus of a difficult story

“I think that makes very human what are otherwise ordinarily just kind of numbers, or anonymous people in a boat crossing to a new country. Once you’re able to personify people — give names, create narratives — it does break down that defensive barrier to think that they’re not like you, because you start hearing about their quirks, things that are really kind of silly and amusing about who they are, which really humanizes people, finding out just how dire their circumstances might have been in the case of refugees. Once you really create three-dimensional people, it becomes a lot harder to just default to those protective mechanisms to separate yourselves from them.

“I think seeing people definitely amplifies the humanity of them, and I think also, as you mentioned with the [Thai navy rescue] diver that unfortunately lost his life, once you got his picture and his name — even among the small group of divers who were fairly undifferentiated at that point — you suddenly knew they were doing something dangerous. But really that understanding of him as a unique person with a life story who made this courageous choice to do this, it really brought to life they’re not just a bunch of divers doing a courageous thing. They’re this person and this person and this person, and that personification, that humanization enables us to connect with people and care in a way that’s not possible when you’re just hundreds of people dying in a flood. It’s very sad and it’s very difficult, but it’s hard to let it settle in with a real concrete sense that those were 100-some individual people, each with their own life stories and trajectories.”

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