Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media

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After the tsunami, slow news day syndrome

Now the waves have receded, the media are using the Fukushima nuclear plant to ramp up the fear fact

I remember 12 September 2001. I spent the day on a coach heading up to Liverpool for a football match, and all you could hear was the rustling of newspaper pages as people tried to parse the horrors of the terror attacks. For the first time in a while, I bought a newspaper; everybody did. At times like that, we turn to traditional media to help us explain the inexplicable.

We'd all been sitting, open-mouthed and incredulous, in front of the television the night before, attempting to process the images we were seeing. "It looked like something out of a film," came the refrain, time after time. It looked unreal because it was so shocking, but there it was, in front of our eyes. This wasn't entertainment: this was real horror, and it was hard to look away.

We've had a similar response to the awful events in Japan over the past few days. This was a disaster that, unlike previous natural phenomena causing huge losses of life, took place in daylight, in a developed country, with the news cameras rolling to capture everything and amateurs on the ground using high-quality cameraphones to record the unfolding tragedy. Never before has a disaster been caught on such a scale; the astonishing videos and incredible photographs still have the power to shock and dismay.

Even in this age of social media, where we may have encountered the story for the first time away from the mainstream, we have turned to newspapers and broadcasters to explain it all to us. "It looks like something out of a disaster movie," you hear time and again. But we know that it's not CGI; that those specks captured on film desperately running or driving from the tsunami are real people with real lives.

We turn to the media to help us when we find it hard to explain a story like the 11 September 2001 attacks, or the Japanese earthquake: when confronted with the evidence, the footage, the deaths on such a scale, we find it hard to deal with what we are seeing and hearing, and look to the village elders to explain. That's the strength of the old media, which have performed tremendously well in this crisis, but it's a weakness, too.

This excellent blog post at Xark helps explain why. Events like the Japanese tragedies, and other great losses of life, are thankfully rare. Extraordinary events elsewhere, such as the uprisings in the Middle East, are equally uncommon. It's not what the mainstream does during these times of crisis that is the problem – we all end up heading back to the BBC, or our favourite newspaper, to help us process what's going on – but what happens in between those times; what goes on during slow news days.

What it can lead to is a catastrophisation of the mundane in order to approximate a verisimilitude of those times when real disasters strike; to re-create that feeling of helplessness in the news consumer, that need to have things explained in the face of incomputable enormity. That's why you see health scares, cancer scares, weather scares, immigration scares and so on in the tabloids: it's an attempt to paint a picture of impending catastrophe, to tap in to your fear, to make you feel like you need these unfolding disasters explained.

With that in mind, it's worth noting that while broadcasters on the whole have been careful to portray the developing problems at the Fukushima nuclear plant – chilling though they are – in the context of more serious events, the tabloids have been a little bit keener to ramp up the fear factor. Slow news day syndrome is creeping back now that the waves have receded. A new disaster is needed, whether it's really there or not.