Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Public Grieving Courtesy of Melissa Block

NPR's All Things Considered is in China this week. They were doing reporting for the upcoming Bejing Olympics, but after yesterday's earthquake, their coverage has obviously changed. Correspondent Melissa Block was actually recording an interview when the quake hit. Shortly after the quake, she went to visit a collapsed middle school from which the the bodies of children were being pulled. Both reports have been combined into one dramatic clip online.

It is emotional. It is articulate. She mentions the grief and the way the parents are mourning and sending their children on to the afterlife. Melissa's voice cracks when she mentions how many dead children she saw—showing that even though she is a reporter who is used to covering the facts, the sheer devastation is getting to her. This is a moving and amazing report.

I'm a big fan of public grief, especially when humanity is hit with a mass tragedy, one like this earthquake. Sometimes we need it, and we should indulge that need. I think Melissa Block has provided us all with a great opportunity to explore some of that public grieving with this 8 and a half minute clip on NPR. You can find it here.


exurgency/Spectacularrr said...

This reminds me of the famous radio clip of Herbert Morrison reporting live on the unexpected eruption of the Hindenburg. His famous cry: "Oh the humanity."

Here's a particularly interesting YouTube clip of Morrison reporting the Hindenburg crash -- noteworthy in part because it presents two different sound-prints of his report: the original and a purportedly cleaned-up version.

I wonder to what extent a (significant?) detail like that influenced how people received the news at the time -- especially given the point here about the role of public grieving delivered through media.

Assuming that the cleaned-up audio track is legit, then I have to admit that Morrison's voice in that recording did always strike me as strangely nasal. Reading my own reaction, though, I'm not sure whether that inclined me to be more or less sympathetic to the message; at the least, it was a little distracting.

Presumably then other impromptu reports of catastrophes -- Murrow during the London Blitz, numerous reporters on September 11th -- are also susceptible to the unintended artifacts of the technology they're using.

It's easy to imagine those technological artifacts hampering the message; but I'd be interested to know of instances where such inadvertent distortions of the message actually heightened the effect.

Jessica Knapp said...

I love these issues you're bringing up!

First on that clip, if you go to watch it, the poster says the slowed down version is how it "really was." I want to pick at that bit. Does he mean that is how Herbert Morrison would have sounded in person? If that is what he means, that's how Morrison would have sounded to a few dozen people at most. The higher-pitched, sped-up version on film has been heard by millions. I would pose that that version is actually how it "really is." Now, the nasally quality of the sped-up track has never noticeably affected me, but that's an interesting question. Maybe it's pulled other people out of the moment.

Second, I absolutely agree with you that other impromptu reports of catastrophes could be artifacts of the technology they're using. I'll be we could find stark differences between what Melissa Block did on radio and what others have done for TV and print news. It's a prime example of Marshall McLuhan's "The medium is the message." Sometimes the form used to say something conveys as much content as what is said within that form.
Your particular angle on finding flaws in the coverage that speak to the medium is intriguing. I wish I could think of other examples with possible flaws.

Maybe when Katie Couric accused Osama bin Laden of being involved in 9/11 early on, before there was any evidence ... and then no one else mentioned his name in connection with the event until hours later. Maybe that didn't happen in radio or print because those media are more tightly scripted.

I'm going to try to think up more examples though. This is an interesting thought-puzzle.