The Hope Beneath 12,341* Radioactive Bodies

Posted: April 8, 2011 by Adam Hodnett in #9 Japan

*Death toll reported by DemocracyNow.org on April 5, 2011. Over 15,000 missing. Is this title too heavy?

I feel guilty not following the crisis in Japan. I can’t imagine what those people are going through. Anything I picture seems like the most horrifying experience possible.

But, somehow earthquakes and tsunamis are beginning to feel common. Japan use to build houses out of paper because it’s an earthquake-prone island, and we have hundreds of nuclear power plants around the world, and a poor record handling fuels.

One of my problems with media is hearing too much negativity (I think it’s lazy reporting). I sometimes feel like I go a little crazy hearing about all the bad things in the world. I’ve decided that staying hopeful is more important than dwelling on things I can’t change. Does that make me self absorbed?

 

***

A few years ago, I was living in Halifax when police blocked off some streets. Smoke rose from a house just out of sight. A friend and I cut through the Dalhousie campus, we ducked under some police tape, and found our way to a two-story home with flames shooting out the windows.  The onlooking family cried as everything they owned burned. I felt like a dick.

I went through all that trouble to give someone an audience during a traumatic time. I could just to go back home to my comfortable bed and never have to think about it again.

Since then, I always hope that people who slowly drive passed accidents end up seeing something they’ll never forget. It’s a bit of a journalistic conflict for me.

***

I feel sadistic seeking out footage of people at their worst. Especially when there’s nothing I can do. I understand that we need to know what’s happening, but how much?

When I was younger and pissed off at the “capitalists,” a friend of mine told me that if I keep letting them get me down, then they win just as much as if I submit. It’s just opposite sides of the same coin.

Feeling bad for someone’s loss doesn’t make it any easier on them, but it can have a heavy toll on you. It seems selfish to think about tragedy like this. But what good is a depressed and cynical audience when nothing can be done anyway?  I often wonder if I’m sympathizing, or easing my conscience.

Do you know what I mean by western guilt? I’m not sure if it’s a “real” term, but I refer to it as something similar to survivors guilt.  I consider a lot of the hardships in the world to be the result of western lifestyle, stemming from British colonialism, and therefore I feel guilty for being born into privilege.

When I hear of tragedies, I feel terrible for my easy life.

Self-loathing and whining doesn’t do any good, so I work hard to avoid these traps.  There’s a balance–be aware, but not consumed.

***

Just as it’s always easy to point out problems and near-impossible to come up with solutions, it’s easy to find the tragedies and hard to find hope. This makes me think about the purpose of journalism.

I have very little interest in spreading despair. I don’t see the point. An emotionally hard-hitting story arch is great, but I like to think every sad story is secretly about redemption.

This is getting complicated. I certainly value journalism as a tool for change. Spreading awareness is one of the greatest things we can do. Exposing facts and forcing accountability is essential. But, as with everything, I believe there’s a balance. Pretending the world is a happy-go-lucky place is deceitful and kind of dumb. But thinking it’s all pain and misery is equally stupid.

In Japan, I know a lot of people have died. And around the world, a lot more will today, and tomorrow, and the next day. And we won’t talk about the vast majority of it. And I know I’m probably more apocalyptic and cynical than is actually sane, but this stuff isn’t news to me. I only hope that people don’t suffer too much, just as I hope I don’t when my time comes.

This is a reason why I love the internet. For the sake of my sanity, I can manage what I see. Kind of like how I stopped watching CNN when I started believing everyone was out to kill me and steal my baby sister.

The hard news from Japan was enough for me. I checked a few re-tweeted videos. But that sinking, hopeless feeling of awe and guilt is poison.  I didn’t click anymore links or read anymore articles. Twitter unfolded the facts, and that was enough.

I eventually went looking for tsunami footage. This is probably one of the craziest videos I have ever seen in my life. It’s important to know that this can happen, but I can’t relate. I feel like it’s an evolutionary defense mechanism–I can’t understand a lot in the world so that I don’t become paralyzed with fear.

I know it’s the job of the journalist to bear witness.  Reminding people of what actually happens in the world to build healthy perspectives. But, (as someone who hasn’t even started his career), I think we can deliver the grit without crushing the hope. But the hope is a lot harder to find.

***

I am very encouraged by all the debate around nuclear power. Articles like Propublica’s, While Nuclear Waste Piles Up in U.S., Billions in Fund To Handle It Sit Unused.

I haven’t heard of a good way to manage radioactive waste, so I’ve never agreed with nuclear power. I’m completely shocked by how accepted it’s been. I’m happy to see people looking at it.

One of my “hobby horses” is the loss of practical knowledge to our modern conveniences. I find we are willingly putting ourselves in vulnerable situations. We’re advancing too fast to allow natural trial and error to regulate us. And we’re including future generations.

We’re not justified in creating problems that could last thousands of years. Sure, I guess it is possible that we will be the only civilization that never falls, but we still can’t control everything. The earth physically shakes and moves, meteors fall, tornadoes happen, volcanoes erupt, places flood, people bomb each other, we make honest mistakes, we overlook things–you just never know. I think we should only gamble with our own money. Go ahead and create a society that has no idea how to produce its own food, but our mistakes shouldn’t be left to our grandchildren.

Democracy Now just did a story called, Japan Releases Radioactive Water Several Millions Times the Legal Limit into Ocean.There will be repercussions. We live with one big ocean. But am I crazy to think we’re getting off lightly?

It seems like the world has been in denial. How did no one realize that building nuclear reactors on fault lines was ridiculous? The Japanese traditionally planned for earthquakes. You figure those things out after living there for centuries. (I am very curious to know who planned those power plants.)

Hopefully we’re figuring some things out now right now, before it’s too late.  As terrible as the events in Japan have been, I hope it wasn’t all in vain. It might of been the shake needed to wake up the world.

 

*****

Somewhat related. I just found this series on vbs.tv and thought this take on Detroit was a good example of finding hope when everyone reports negativity. A little inappropriate in relation to Japan, but suitable for a class on new journalism. http://www.vbs.tv/en-ca/watch/uneven-terrain/palladium-detroit-full-new-credits–3

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Comments
  1. sharonfawcett says:

    Adam, I really like this post. You raised some important issues that I’m sure a lot of journalists struggle with. Is a journalist a voyeur or someone who exploits another’s pain? How can journalists balance reporting on horrible events and negative news with journalism that empowers citizens and brings about positive change? How do journalists avoid “spreading despair?” Do enough of them try to avoid it?

    You wrote, “When I hear of tragedies, I feel terrible for my easy life.” When I hear of tragedies, I feel greatful for my life (though, I’ve had my share of “tragedy”) and I often feel compelled to do something to make another person’s life easier–whether that’s contributing to a relief fund, spreading awareness about an issue that’s under-reported, or any number of other things.

    “I like to think,” you said, “every sad story is secretly about redemption.” I couldn’t agree more. I think that one of the problems with journalism is that news of tragedy, crime, and suffering are easier to sell than good news. When disaster strikes, the media rolls in, sets up shop for a few days, and attempts to document it. But once the footage has been captured, the victims interviewed, and viewers satiated with a bearable dose of bad news, the cameras are packed up and the journalists move on to the next crisis. Very rarely do journalists follow up months, or years, later, to see if anything good came out of the tragedy. I believe that if they did, they would find many stories of “redemption,” as you put it. It’s a shame we don’t hear more of them. That’s the sort of thing I’d like to write about. 🙂

    Thanks for your thought-provoking post!

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