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Thursday, May 23, 2013

It's Not A Miracle, It's Architecture

During CNN's coverage of the damage from the tornado that struck Moore, Oklahoma, Wolf Blitzer interviewed a woman holding a baby who had managed to escape. Blitzer asked, "I guess you got to thank to the lord, right?" The woman paused and looked at her child as Blitzer asked again, "Do you thank the lord for that split-second decision?" The woman answered, to Blitzer's utter surprise, "I'm actually an atheist."

As Mark Joseph Stern points out on Slate today, Blitzer's ridiculous question is part of the standard playbook for reporters covering disasters. Everything good that happened is a miracle thanks to divine intervention, but there's no blaming a deity for the rampant destruction:
Thanking the Lord for deliverance just doesn’t make any sense. Any God powerful and attentive enough to save survivors’ lives should also be powerful and attentive enough to stop the catastrophe in the first place. It’s insulting, futile, and distracting from the reality of natural disasters to inject your god into a calamity like Oklahoma's.

Not that most public figures are hesitating to do so. #PrayforOklahoma began trending on Twitter soon after news of the storm spread, attracting contributions from Chris Christie, Laura Ingraham, and Michael Vick. President Obama proclaimed that “our prayers are with the people of Oklahoma,” and Gov. Mary Fallin requested “lots of prayers.” (Fortunately for the survivors, she wasn’t too busy praying to set up an actual disaster relief fund.)

In a country as religious as the United States, calling for prayer is almost always a popular move for politicians. But the trend extends into what should be fact-based news broadcasting. A reporter for KFOR, examining the footage of a razed school, noted that “we pray [the faculty and children] were somewhere else.” (They weren’t; seven children perished.) Even the anchors at the Weather Channel, normally a good source for solid meteorological reporting, repeatedly sent their prayers to Oklahoma on Monday night. And while interviewing Ben McMillan, a storm chaser who used his EMT training to rescue 15 people from tornado rubble, Erin Burnett on CNN exclaimed, “Thank God you were able to help them!” (Shouldn’t she be thanking McMillan?)

The word “miracle” also stalks post-tornado reporting. An ABC feature noted that although the tornado hit two elementary schools, Briarwood and Plaza Towers, it caused casualties at only Plaza Towers. How, the newscaster asks, did Briarwood end up with this “miracle ending”? (The families and friends of the seven children who died at Plaza Towers would not consider this ending really all that miraculous.) The answer to the newscaster’s question lies not in a deity but at least in part in design. Neither school had a safe room. But Briarwood had a large, open-air space between its four classroom pods to which children and teachers crawled as the roof caved in. Plaza Towers had no such space, and when the school collapsed, children were crushed. That’s not a miracle: It’s architecture.
Read Stern's entire piece here.