< Sweating the Coverage


Friday, July 29, 2005

BOG GARFIELD: In most of the country it was a real scorcher out there this week.

REPORTER: Across the Midwest today the heat wave continues. Name your adjective. Stifling and oppressive come to mind.

REPORTER: It is a steambath out there from coast to coast, and almost everywhere in between.

REPORTER: An excessive heat warning remains in effect today for much of the Midwest--

BOG GARFIELD: As of Thursday, the heat had been blamed for at least 29 deaths in Phoenix, at least four in Missouri, two in New Jersey, two in Oklahoma, and one each in Kentucky, Ohio and Mississippi. And it was far from the deadliest in recent times. Ten years ago this month a pocket of hot air slowly baked the inhabitants of Chicago for a solid week, killing 739 people, more than twice the number who perished in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. And yet, that heat wave remains one of the most overlooked disasters in American history. Eric Klinenberg is author of Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago. His book examines why the media underplay the heat, even though it kills more people than all other natural disasters in the country combined. His case in point, that hellacious Chicago heat wave of 1995.

ERIC KLINENBERG: Really serious and dangerous heat was moving up from the southwest. In fact, thousands of chickens and cows had died as the heat wave moved its way up. And people had a sense that this was fairly serious. But there's a kind of standard format that journalists use when a heat wave arrives. They tend to go to an appliance store that's selling out of air conditioners and report on how difficult it is to find a new unit. They might do something like fry an egg on the street or do dueling meteorologists where they compare the heat in Chicago with the heat in Palm Springs. So we got that kind of light summer feature coverage for the first few days. Then it became quite clear that the heat wave of '95 was something special. The Medical Examiner's Office began to report that tens and then hundreds in the city had perished, and thousands more were hospitalized with heat-related illness. Suddenly, it wasn't such a light story anymore.

BOG GARFIELD: Well, I'm going to ask you about the casualty toll in a moment, but first I want to explore reasons that the heat wave didn't get the play in Chicago equivalent to, let's say, a hurricane bearing down on the Gulf Coast or a big blizzard in the Northeast. And one, I guess is, once the fried egg gag is taken care of it's hard to take dramatic pictures of a heat wave.

ERIC KLINENBERG: Heat waves themselves are not so photogenic. I mean, if we compare a image of a heat wave to an image of a tornado or a hurricane or a flood, we realize quickly it's not that spectacular. And I think because the image isn't so powerful, they're silent and invisible and anonymous disasters.

BOG GARFIELD: Now, another reason you cite for undercoverage is the demographic profile of the victims, mainly elderly, mainly poor.

ERIC KLINENBERG: I spent several weeks talking to journalists in Chicago when I did research for the heat wave book, and they made it clear that they wanted to tell a story of a disaster that made it seem as if it was a universal experience. If a blizzard hit Chicago, for example, everyone's affected by the pileup of snow; it's difficult to walk outside, it's difficult to move your car, get to work, take public transportation. But heat waves pinpoint this particular part of the population--the elderly, the poor, people living in relatively abandoned neighborhoods--

BOG GARFIELD: It pinpoints them--I'm sorry, because they simply don't have air conditioning, correct?

ERIC KLINENBERG: Exactly. They don't have air conditioning, and they're more likely to stay indoors and be isolated enough that they'll experience heat-related illness a long time and not have anyone come to take care of them. And so, you definitely got in the Chicago coverage a lot of the debate between the Medical Examiner and the Mayor, particularly a debate over whether the deaths were actually related to heat, but you didn't get a lot of reporting from the streets, from the neighborhoods where people were really affected by the weather.

BOG GARFIELD: As you said, Mayor Daly played down the seriousness of the heat wave and he urged Chicagoans, "not to blow it out of proportion" and publicly cast doubt on the Medical Examiner's estimate of the numbers dying from the heat. And the press covered it exactly that way and became preoccupied with the politics of the story, more than the life and death particulars.

ERIC KLINENBERG: This made for an incredible scandal, a kind of he-said/she-said story, where the medical examiner would have a press conference and then the Mayor would have his. And, unfortunately, the journalists in Chicago spent so much time covering this kind of strange political feud, that they got distracted from the other issues, in some ways the more fundamental social issues which concerned the deep questions of why so many people were dying. And the other thing that happened is that that frame, the medical examiner versus the Mayor, proved to be so journalistically compelling that newspapers and television stations stayed with it long after the scientific debate was decided. And so, I saw in reviewing the coverage, weeks later reports about this controversy which, in fact, was not a controversy at all.

BOG GARFIELD: On this show we've spent a fair amount of time criticizing coverage of weather stories and other natural disasters, but most of our criticism has focused on TV, especially cable news and local TV news. But in this case, according to your book, the print press had as much to answer for as anybody. And the Chicago Tribune seemed to acknowledge its shortcomings with an attempt, at least, of coverage after the fact. Tell me about that.

ERIC KLINENBERG: The newspapers in Chicago actually did do deeper coverage of the disaster than the local television stations. They didn't fail altogether. But they clearly didn't do the kind of job you would expect for a major American city. And some of the editors and reporters at the Tribune recognized this problem, and they went to their superiors immediately after the disaster and asked for permission to get some more people on the streets to do an investigative piece that would try to understand what are some lessons here. They put about six or seven people on the job, and they spent weeks trying to come up with profiles of the people who died and died alone. But, unfortunately, they didn't finish their reporting until the fall, and when the lead reporters brought the story to the main editors, they finally decided that actually 700 people dying in Chicago in a heat wave is a summer story. The editors insisted Chicago readers just wouldn't be interested in the disaster coverage months later.

BOG GARFIELD: From your perspective, having studied the Chicago disaster, what role should the media be playing during a heat wave?

ERIC KLINENBERG: In Chicago and in many other cities local governments don't declare a heat emergency until local media begin to report that people are getting sick or dying. So they actually have quite a key role to play. If they would stop frying eggs, they could actually do terrific public health work.

BOG GARFIELD: All right. Well Eric, thank you very much.

ERIC KLINENBERG: Let's hope we don't have to talk next summer.

BOG GARFIELD: Eric Klinenberg is an associate professor of sociology at New York University and author of Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago. (MUSIC)

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, an unaccustomed quiet follows the murder of a journalist in Haiti. And a channel that shows another side of Africa.

BOG GARFIELD: This is On the Media, from NPR.