Why fake photos are as appealing as real ones in a disaster

Reuters | Salon

What makes humans "hunger for more disaster and mayhem," Jack Shafer asks, looking at how we greedily lapped up every jot and tittle about Hurricane Sandy this week. "Television and the Web," Shafer writes, "place us in the comfortable zone between too-far-away-to-feel-the-rush and I’m-so-damned-close-I-got-splattered-with-blood." Had the Washington-area resident's house not lost power, he says,

the media buzz I got last night from the Hurricane Sandy coverage could have kept me up for hours beyond my usual bedtime. Had my electric power been restored by morning, I don’t have to tell you what my first act would have been upon awakening.

That "disaster porn" has a byproduct, writes Laura Miller:

Bogus photos, however, are a strange new form of popular expression attached to unfolding crises, hovering somewhere on the boundary between art and commentary. With Hurricane Sandy, most of the dramatic shots of recognizable New York landmarks against backdrops of storm clouds were circulated in the fairly quiet hours before the rain began to fall. It’s as if the images were created and passed around because people needed pictures to equal their anxiety. How else could it be justified? Nothing that happens goes unphotographed or unvideoed anymore, and if no one produces a genuine photo of titanic clouds closing in on the Big Apple, then somebody, apparently, must make one. These weren’t pictures of what was happening; they were pictures of our dread.

Real photos of Sandy's damage, Miller writes, were "so shocking they seemed like they could only be designed for dramatic effect, and so it became increasingly difficult to recognize the truth when it finally came along."

Related: How New York radio host Brian Lehrer used listeners as a “central resource” during Sandy | Tom Phillips: Correcting tweets ‘like putting toothpaste back in the tube’ | How journalists can avoid getting fooled by fake Hurricane Sandy photos

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at TBD.com and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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