It’s amazing to me how quickly we move on in the world when it comes to tragedies. The earthquake in Nepal was horrendous. Over a week after, they were still finding people buried under rubble. Yet, within a day or two after the event I mostly stopped hearing about it. A couple years ago I spent some time in India, and I’ve a friend in Nepal right now, so perhaps that is why it bugs me a little more.
Those in the danger zones will be living in the aftermath of this tragedy for weeks and months and years, yet those of us who are safe forget. Part of this is probably our proclivity to focus on what is right before us at the present moment in our present context.
Part of it, I think is the often distant scope of storytelling by newscasters. People and tragedies are reduced to statistics and pictures of rubble. Few of the stories I watched or read on the event were all that memorable to be honest. It was mostly a body count. We do this with wars oftentimes too. It’s not surprising we forget them, because we don’t make a personal connection. The one story that stood out to me was on the BBC, and it was the personal account of a climber on Everest, who survived the avalanche on Base Camp.
There was another account of a BBC newscaster walking amidst rubble. There were some locals in the background. Too often we let the people affected by these disasters remain in the background.
The truth is, statistics and disaster images, while they may provide some shock value (Holy crap, so many people have died! Look at those upturned streets, or toppled homes!), they do not trigger much in terms of a personal connection. I think it is for this reason we are so often able to look the other way from poverty and disaster and war.
There was a reason the mountain climber’s account was more memorable than the newscaster walking down the upturned street. One was up close and personal, one was withdrawn. One told a human story, of a real person from the U.K. who was on the highest mountain in the world chasing a dream, and was fortunate to have happened to have previously ascended to Camp 1 on the mountain when the avalanche was triggered by tremors. Had his team happened to have been at Base Camp instead that day, he might have died like the other twenty (latest count) climbers. The news story gave us a person with a story.
For whatever reason, we humans are rather obsessed with stories. We read them by the millions. We spend billions of dollars each year to view films. They can be true, based on truth, or entirely made up. Why are there still so many stories set during World War II? We’ve got the facts down, don’t we? Yet, one of the biggest-selling stories of the past year was yet another World War II story, All the Light We Cannot See.
Readers get tired of facts and statistics, and even shocking images. How many starving kids have you see on TV ads for feeding the hungry? Did they stay ingrained on your mind long enough, or move you enough personally to do anything? But I would guarantee that if you met a young starving child from Africa or India or wherever, and heard them tell you their story, you would not forget it, and you would be more likely to do something about it.
Now, I know that the news is, supposedly, about delivering facts (I can hear you laughing now), but I think that the principles of storytelling might apply as well. In stories the events or the setting do matter, but unless we have a character people care about, it won’t be worth reading. The same might be said of the news.
I would venture to say the average person could tell you more about Lindsey Vonn’s and Tiger Wood’s break-up or what’s going on lately with the Kardashians, than they could tell you about the latest in Nepal.
Part of this is probably celebrity worship. But maybe some of it, is that these involve real, live human beings and the things happening in their specific lives.
Perhaps if we narrowed the scope of the story a bit, the tragedy in Nepal would remain in people’s minds longer. Sometimes we can’t understand the trials endured by the thousands until we see it through the eyes of one.
It’s a theory, anyway.