Thursday, April 12, 2012

Tuchman's Law

In 1978, Barbara Tuchman, Pulitzer Prize winning historian, said it best. The fact of being recorded makes a disaster appear both continuous and ubiquitous. Barbara Tuchman was speaking of ancient records, specifically the few records relating to the disastrous 14th century, an era visited by plague, war, religious dissension, greed, political maladministration, and decay of manners. Thus, an age not unlike our own, or any other age.

She thus formulated Tuchman's Law, "The fact of being reported multiples the apparent extent of any deplorable development by five- to tenfold. (or any figure [one] would care to supply)." By including the parenthetical observation, Tuchman anticipated the development of videotape and the reporting practices of CNN, Fox, and all of the other news reporting media who play and replay a tape snippet, thus magnifying the event twenty-fold and continuing its reportage over days, weeks, and even months.

To take but one horrific disaster as an example, consider the early reporting of the disaster at the World Trade Center in September of 2001. Surely, CNN and Fox and all the other media put on loop the videotape of the two planes crashing into the two towers. Viewers were mesmerized by the repeating scene. This made it appear that New York City and every other city in America was under attack, as plane after plane crashed into building after building. Buildings tumbled into a mass of destruction, smoke clouds rose, and people fled in terror.

In this one instance, editors and newsrooms quickly came to their senses. They quit rebroadcasting the tapes. Showing the destruction only served the interests of the terrorists who want to sow fear and loathing. Instead they focused on the task at hand, aiding the injured, finding survivors, and finding out who perpetrated the disaster.

Since 2001, it has been back to normal.

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