Reporting Disaster: the Myth of the Flood in the Press Coverage of the 2011 Flemish Pukkelpop Drama

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Abstract

Located at the intersection of literary studies, and cultural and sociological analyses of journalistic texts, this paper examines the narrative qualities and societal dimension of myths and storytelling in news coverage of natural disasters (Berkowitz 1997; Bird & Dardenne 2009; Carey 1988; Lule 2001). Through this interdisciplinary lens, we analyze the way Flemish newspapers covered a dramatic downburst hitting the open-air Pukkelpop music festival in Hasselt, Belgium, on August, 18th 2011. The intense storm invoked immense human and material damage, causing five deaths and more than a hundred injured, and led the local authorities to declare a state of emergency. While the story got picked up by international news media (such as BBC and CNN), domestic news reporting of the fallout of the disaster quickly developed into a media hype.
In the present study we focus on how three Flemish daily newspapers covered the disaster and its immediate aftermath in the first three weeks following August, 18th. Including a broadsheet (De Morgen), a popular title (Het Nieuwsblad), as well as a regional newspaper mainly circulated in the local area where the events occurred (Het Belang van Limburg), our search yielded a sample of a total number of 228 articles, comprising different genres of journalistic texts.
News articles are often built along repetitive structures, in which the topical questions of ancient rhetoric form the backbone (Van Ginneken 2002). Yet, in a context where (the disruption of) social order is concerned and the emotions of the readers are affected, masternarratives (Overholster & Jamieson 2006) -- or 'myths', as Lule (2001) calls them -- which employ common, deep-seated understandings, archetypes and motifs, offer an alternative for structuring stories. Investigating to what extent and how masternarratives effectively shaped the newspapers' reporting of the Pukkelpop disaster, our analysis primarily focusses on the 'myth of the flood' as the most pronounced, and overarching, narrative structure. We first operationalize this archetypal story by outlining the narrative sequences (punishment of sins; total and arbitrary destruction; powerlessness of mankind; purifying effects) as well as social values that constitute it, and then demonstrate how these all are embedded in the textual representation -- both verbally and visually -- of the disaster by the three newspapers. As we argue, however, the narrative development and resolution of the 'flood' masternarrative entails the invocation, also, of elements of the 'hero', 'victim' and 'Good
Mother' myths (Lule 2001).
Our analysis shows that traumatic and socially disruptive events, like natural disasters of this magnitude, create momentum for news media's role as contemporary mythological storytellers. Of utmost interest are the implications -- complications -- of understanding journalism beyond shared norms of professional detachment and objectivity, or beyond rational and critical assessment (of events and responsibilities), as a particularly powerful vehicle for effecting broader communal processes of remembrance, relief, reassurance and recovery (Benthall 1993; Kitch & Hume 2008; Kitch 2009).
References
Benthall, J. (1993). Disasters, Relief and the Media. London: I.B. Tauris.
Berkowitz, D. (1997). Social meanings of news: A text-reader. London: Sage.
Bird, S. E. & R.W. Dardenne (2009). 'Rethinking news and myth as storytelling', in K. Wahl-Jorgensen & T. Hanitzsch (Eds.), The handbook of journalism studies (pp. 205-217). New York, NY: Routledge.
Carey, J. (1988). Media, myths, and narratives. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Kitch, C., & J. Hume. (2008). Journalism in a culture of grief. New York: Taylor & Francis.
Kitch, C. (2009). 'Tears and trauma in the news'. In B. Zelizer (Ed.), The changing faces of journalism (pp. 29-39). New York: Routledge.
Lule, J. (2001). Daily News. Eternal Stories: The Mythological Role of Journalism. New York: The Guildford Press.
Overholster, G. & K. Jamieson (2006). The Institutions of American Democracy: The Press. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Van Ginneken, J. (2002). De Schepping van de Wereld in het Nieuws. Amsterdam: Kluwer.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publication5th European Communication Conference (ECC/ECREA)
Publication statusPublished - 13 Nov 2014
Event5th European Communication Conference (ECC/ECREA) - Lisbon, Portugal
Duration: 12 Nov 201415 Nov 2014

Conference

Conference5th European Communication Conference (ECC/ECREA)
Country/TerritoryPortugal
CityLisbon
Period12/11/1415/11/14

Keywords

  • news coverage
  • discourse analysis
  • disaster reporting
  • myths
  • news narratives
  • journalistic values

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