Superstorm or Super Disappointment: Are We Sadistic About Natural Disaster?

By Alissa Fleck 

It’s well-known news by now — the New York-based political advisor who spread false rumors about storm-related damage throughout Hurricane Sandy’s rampage. The fallout resulted in calls by some officials for legal action.

Yet a similar, albeit less threatening, trend related to social media and natural disaster extends much further. All over the Northeast, users took to Twitter — and other social media — the Monday evening of Hurricane Sandy’s East Coast landfall to lament what a “disappointment” Sandy had turned out to be.

By 8:30 p.m. on Monday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office had announced five hurricane-related fatalities in New York, raising the overall death toll to more than 70 in a storm far from finished wreaking havoc, yet some individuals were notably dismayed. They had not even lost power.

Thousands of homes up and down the coast were underwater and millions more were without electricity. For days and possibly even weeks to come, some would be unable to make it to jobs upon which they depended to eke out a living, yet people took to very public forums that Monday night to call Sandy nothing more than a “joke.”

They claimed all the hype had set them up for disappointment. Others pointed to Hurricane Irene which hit the East Coast earlier in the year and had similarly failed to live up to their expectations. Some talked about how the media had glorified Hurricane Sandy, how surely live news crews would be disheartened if the storm didn’t meet its predicted level of terror.

And while media coverage focused heavily on officials’ remarks to evacuate in a timely fashion or stay indoors, decrying the selfishness of those who put first responders at risk, they also took the time to interview the man risking life and limb jet-skiing in the Hudson River, and children in flooded New Jersey streets playing with downed street signs.

They reported from the edge of whipping, white-capped waters, breaking in and out with added effect, as reporters are wont to do. This sort of coverage is a trademark of contemporary news media, but are reporters under pressure to find the big, hard-hitting story at the risk of magnifying — or skewing — disaster? In the case of Sandy, no, we understand with the advantage of hindsight.

It’s true some people will say anything for a moment in the spotlight and perhaps we should not judge them too harshly for the seemingly cruel nonchalance flooding social networking platforms, but we do have to wonder about the origin of this larger instinct rampant in so many of us. Why do we pore over the news coverage, glued to the next apocalyptic event, seemingly continually (perhaps quietly) let down? Why are we almost sadistically drawn to disaster? Is this the very epitome of schadenfreude?

And what exactly would it take for Sandy not to disappoint some of us — how much destruction? How many brutal, graphic deaths? How close to home?

It seems there is something about the chaos and utter lack of control that thrills us humans — all the excitement of a disaster movie, enhanced, so long as it does not impact us too directly. Surely, if asked, most of these Tweeters would agree they do not explicitly want to see others suffer. Maybe they’d even be ashamed to concede to the thrill they register.

And, in the end, can we blame them for their honesty? Are the rest of us just holding back what we all collectively feel? Stuart Fischoff of the “Journal of Media Psychology” once explained many humans need a certain safe amount of terror for stimulation and excitement in otherwise typically calm lifestyles. This — in the form of horror movies and haunted houses, and potentially devastating natural disasters — provides a safe, electrifying break from the mundane, before we are permitted to scurry back. To run for the emergency exit, to push the stop button, to yell the safe word.

It seems safe to say our fascination is not only mildly sadistic then, but a touch masochistic as well.

Possibly it’s not excitement we feel in our traditional understanding of the word, but excitement more as a fight-or-flight type response, a defense mechanism, the difficult-to-pinpoint emotion that manifests when our nervous systems are in overdrive. Maybe it’s misguided pride or denial in the face of nature’s fearful omnipotence. Perhaps it’s just the I survived factor.

Then there is the well-tread territory of disaster fatigue — with the media playing an integral role — wherein we can only feel so bad for so long, before we are emotionally drained and must defend ourselves. Maybe we are more careless than ever and, given the outlet, more quick to express this carelessness (this, its own form of denial).

Maybe the reaction witnessed here is in part the simple ignorance of youth, the utterances of those unable to see too far behind their own narrow contexts.

Or, perhaps some element of the human psyche is bound up in something slightly more sinister, something we may not want to address, something just beyond our reach, something lurking even between the lines of that Tweeter’s false rumors. Most likely, it’s a little bit of all of it.

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28 responses to “Superstorm or Super Disappointment: Are We Sadistic About Natural Disaster?

  1. Doing my part to limit this type of coverage to pollute my mind. Today I am handing in my cable box. Besides the outrageous fees charged, I am frustrated with the negative, biased and unprofessional reporting. Its become tabloid

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  2. Oh man, I am so guilty of this. As I sat in bed that night – the night that Sandy was bearing down on south-central Pennsylvania – I remember thinking “why isn’t this worse?”. I felt disappointed…I knew it was stupid to feel that way because I could see the devastation on the TV, but I couldn’t help it. I’ve always been a bit of a weather nut and even thunderstorms disappoint me if there isn’t enough boom and crash. When our region received record flooding in September of 2011 and I had to stay late at work directing emergency efforts, I felt needed. I wonder if that same part of me – the part that wants to feel needed – also wanted Sandy to be worse because I knew that there would be something to clean up or fix.

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  5. I understand what you are saying, and I know many people are guilty of thrill seeking or whatever it is. What I disagree with is how widespread it is. I definitely don’t look for disaster – and I don’t thrill seek, watch horror movies, or Tweet in disappointment that I still have power – what is up with that?!? At the same time I clearly remember the Loma Prieta earthquake in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1989. There was horrific damage – in very few places. But that’s all the media showed, over and over and over again. It was hypnotic viewing the damage, and very hard to break away and remember that for the great majority our homes, roads, jobs and utilities were not impacted. And then it’s easy to get a little disgusted that the media plays up the damage but gives no perspective. And I can remember hearing more than once some media person claiming gloatingly that “WE can’t get enough of this stuff” – tragedy, the foibles of famous people – and yelling back at the TV “NO! YOU can’t get enough! I don’t want ANY of it!”

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  6. Just listen to the ridiculous anxiety-producing music behind the “news shows” and look at the frantic scrolling headlines at the bottom of the screen. The media thinks it’s their job to keep us on the edge of our seats. After all, if there’s no disaster pending and we are not under immediate threat of *something* who would watch their crap?

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  7. As a professional in the field of emergency management, what you describe is a challenge that we face. Storms and other incidents get very hyped up, people brace for the worst, then nothing happens. After this occurs a few times, they give up preparing. It’s a twist on crying wolf, I suppose. The end result is people rolling their eyes when we try to stress the need for individual, family, and business preparedness. People think that 1) it’s not going to happen here; 2) it’s not going to be that bad; 3) there is nothing I can do about it; or 4) government will take care of me.
    While we can’t necessarily change how people react, I have to hold the media accountable for a large part of this.

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  8. I think we should call it “reality” news, as in – tune in to whatever reality you want. You can choose Anderson C.ooper news or Ann Coulter news. Just be careful not to fool yourself; neither has integrity. I liken it to the Roman Coliseum, the crowd roars as the arena fills with blood. The disappointment was palpable when Sandy didn’t turn into another Katrina. Hour after hour we watched waves roll in along the eastern seaboard. By no means am I making light of the losses suffered by thousands of people. That said – rather than scramble for another computer graphic or grasp for a visual of some wind swept reporter – it would have been nice to hear the full story. I wonder how many people know that 15,000 homes were lost in Cuba, or that up to 80% of their crops were wiped out. How about the 52 lives lost in Haiti? The term “media” is accurate “news media” is a fantasy.

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  9. Brilliant post! I ‘switched off’ from all the usual forms of media contact 3 years ago and haven’t regretted it. Radio, television, newspapers and magazines were all ‘evicted’ from my home. I figured if there’s something truly important I need to know, the info always finds its way to me (and always has).

    I’ve found life to be so much more calm and serene without the constant babble, hype, and being made to feel as though guilt should consume me for events in the world (mostly man-made) that I can do nothing about.

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