Minutes after the earthquake hit Chile on Feb. 27, expatriate Chileans were receiving tweets with the news. Within hours, Google had set up a page marking earthquake activity throughout the zone by city, province and even postal code. It took days to get the phone lines up and it felt like technology had failed us. A virtual reversion to the dark ages again.
We live in an interconnected world (yes, it’s a clichÃ©) and that means that we are constantly exposed to international events. The moment that an earthquake hits, a civil war breaks out or an election is suspected to be rigged, you, the global citizen, can, theoretically, assume that you will hear about it. The problem is that the media focuses on reporting the really extreme happenings&- in other words, when things go boom. The nature of the journalistic story is to focus on events details and statistics which make it possible to explain what is happening.
When these are the only stories about a place or group of people, it’s all too easy to fall into seeing them as perpetual victims of events beyond their control, beings without agency or the ability to problem solve.
For example, if you look back at the coverage of the Haiti earthquake just consider how many many times sources reported what international aid organizations were doing versus what the people who lived there had already done to get organized and deal with the disaster. This is not to fault the media; stories about catastrophes don’t have room for anyone who isn’t a victim, a villain or a hero. People who are adapting, managing, coping or surviving are not exactly interesting unless you’ve got some room to become familiar with individuals and notice what makes them different.
This is where art and literature can offer a valuable complement to news in telling stories about the rest of the world. I would even go so far as to say that the more prevalent journalism becomes in our lives the more important it is going to be to also promote art and literature that also comes from voices that stand outside of our sphere no matter who they may be.
Events like natural disasters and political upheavals may appear in fictional stories told through creative mediums such as literature, film, theatre or visual arts, but always by relating it to the experiences of characters. Creative stories help the audience to accept unconditionally the perspective of a protagonist, even when it clashes with their own. By asking people to relate to an alternate perspective, good art reveals the nuanced complexities of every situation – the deeper, messier details of events where people can deal with but not be defined by catastrophe.
As never before, we need art to complement what a simple description of events can not provide.