Telling tales of tragedy and recovery: Narrative form and social empathy in the press coverage of the 2011 Flemish Pukkelpop drama.

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingMeeting abstract (Book)


Building on cultural and sociological analyses of the narrative and social conventions shaping
journalistic texts and practices (Berkowitz 1997; Bird & Dardenne 2009; Carey 1988; Lule 2001;
Schudson 1982, 2008), this paper examines the ritual function (Carey, 1988) performed by the news
media in reporting 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 sample contains a total number
of 228 articles, comprising different genres of journalistic texts.
This specific, high-profile case of (natural) disaster reporting figures as a particularly rich site for the
interrogation and discussion of conventional (moral) idea(l)s of objectivity and social purpose related
to the professional identity and the role of the press in democratic societies (Schudson 2001, 2008;
Coward, 2013). Of primary interest in the present study is the critical assessment of journalism's
penchant for the ceremonial display of emotionally intense, dramatic events - being 'saturated with
tears and trauma' (Kitch 2009, 29) - against commonly shared objectives of providing 'fair and full
information' (Schudson, 2008, 12), and detached and rational analysis or commentary. At moments
of crisis, where (the disruption of) social order is concerned and public feelings are affected, news
stories are often structured by masternarratives (Overholster & Jamieson 2006) - or 'myths', as Lule
(2001) calls them - which employ deep-seated understandings, archetypes and motifs. Our analysis
primarily focusses on the 'myth of the flood' as the most pronounced, and overarching, narrative
structure in the Pukkelpop coverage. We operationalize this archetypal story by outlining the
narrative sequences (punishment of sins; total and arbitrary destruction; powerlessness of mankind;
purifying effects) as well as socio-cultural values that constitute it. As we argue, however, the
narrative development and resolution of the 'flood' masternarrative also entails the invocation of
elements of the 'hero', 'victim' and 'Good Mother' myths (Lule 2001; Kitch 2009).
While performing a ritual function by effecting broader communal processes of remembrance, relief,
reassurance and recovery (Benthall 1993; Kitch & Hume 2008; Kitch 2009) - 'situating [journalists]
within culture, rather than outside it' (Kitch 2009, 34) - such journalism may also foreclose
discussions of (causal) context and responsibility. So, it appears that when confronted with trauma
and public grief of this magnitude, the instrumental utility of the 'objectivity' norm for journalists -
'living in the public eye' - to guard against criticism and gain public support (Schudson 2001, 165) is
temporarily suspended for the moral norm of expressing and encouraging compassion and solidarity
- or 'social empathy' (Schudson 2008, 17). As such, our analysis subscribes to, and further explores,
journalism's multifaceted status as 'a complex social and discursive domain' (Schudson 2001, 164)
and 'mixed-bag of an institution' (Schudson 2008, 8; see also Zelizer, 2009).
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:
Carey, J. (1988). Media, myths, and narratives. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Coward, R. (2013). Speaking Personally: The Rise of Subjective and Confessional Journalism. New
York: Palgrave MacMillan.
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.
Schudson, M. (1982). 'The politics of narrative form: The emergence of news conventions in print and
television', Daedalus, 111(4): pp. 97-112.
Schudson, M. (2001). 'The objectivity norm in American journalism', Journalism, 2(2): pp. 149-170.
Schudson, M. (2008). Why Democracies Need an Unlovable Press. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Zelizer, B. (Ed.) (2009). The Changing Faces of Journalism. New York: Routledge
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publication‘The Unlovable Press. Conversations with Michael Schudson’.- University of Groningen, The Netherlands
Publication statusPublished - 17 Jun 2014
EventThe Unlovable Press. Conversations with Michael Schudson - University of Groningen, Groningen, Netherlands
Duration: 16 Jun 201417 Jun 2014


ConferenceThe Unlovable Press. Conversations with Michael Schudson


  • discourse analysis
  • journalism studies
  • disaster reporting
  • myths


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