Journalists compare Katrina coverage to reality TV

I have very little tolerance for journalists who write those “reality TV isn’t real” columns. But at least they aren’t exploiting a tragedy to advance their own anti-reality TV agendas. Over the past few days, a number of journalists and columnists have taken it upon themselves to make an argument by drawing a comparison between reality TV and Katrina’s wrath, as if it’s possible to compare playing a game on an island to drowning in your own house because you didn’t have money at the end of the month to evacuate.

Here are three egregious examples; I’m sure there are others. First, Detroit Free Press columnist Susan Ager wants CBS to cancel Survivor Guatemala, although she’s not able to explain why, exactly. Her are her first three paragraphs:

“A word to CBS: Don’t you dare show us another TV commercial for the next ‘Survivor’ series, due to start in 11 days.

In fact, CBS, you’d be wise to cancel it.

This week, we’ve had enough reality TV for a lifetime. The men, women and children we’ve watched are not competing for a million-dollar check, but for their lives and their sanity.”

Next up is John Christie, the publisher of the Kennebec Journal and the Morning Sentinel in Maine. After a decently written reflection about hurricanes and their wrath, he closes with a punch to reality TV’s stomach:

“I wonder: After watching the real stories of Katrina, will reality TV seem trivial, contrived and pitiful?”

Finally, here’s WCCO’s Don Shelby. He begins his commentary on the hurricane like this:

“What we are seeing in the wake of Hurricane Katrina is reality TV. But this is no tropical paradise, and winners don’t walk away with a million dollars and fame.

If these people are lucky, they get out with their lives.

Why should one genre of entertainment cease in the wake of a natural disaster? What rational human being has to wonder about the difference between a television program and natural disaster? Why are allegedly intelligent people who have a responsibility to gather news and opinions referring to news coverage as “reality TV,” a form of entertainment? And who really watched coverage on TV and confused it with Survivor?

Perhaps there’s a compelling, rational argument to be made about the way we watch disaster coverage and the way we consume entertainment that features real people. But the examples above are not nuanced arguments. They’re overreactions and inexcusable cheap shots. Calling the events of the past week “reality TV” is reprehensible and exploitative.

Maybe these writers are reacting with their emotions, or perhaps they’re just stupid. But if someone seriously compares entertainment television programs featuring real people to a natural disaster that killed perhaps tens of thousands of people, perhaps they have some self-examination to do, since they apparently think the news from Louisiana and Mississippi is entertaining.

Susan Ager: Time-to-face- reality TV [Detroit Free Press]
Hurricanes prove nature still rules supreme [Morning Sentinel]
Don Shelby Comments On Hurricane Katrina [WCCO]

about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.