On October 22nd 2012, Hurricane Sandy formed and began its devastating trail of destruction. Originating from a tropical wave in the West Caribbean Sea, it then commenced its path toward the Greater Antilles, through Jamaica, Cuba and the Bahamas, before attacking with a vengeance the East Coast of America. Hurricane Sandy blasted its way through eight countries and 24 states, with the current death toll approximated at 193. Yet the first I heard of this disaster wasn’t via CNN, BBC News, The Guardian or Radio 1. No, the first source telling me about Hurricane Sandy was Kim Kardashian.
As the Kardashians are probably not the most reliable of sources, I began to do some more thorough research. Sure enough, news of the hurricane was everywhere and not just on my Twitter feed. Why is it that today we look more and more to celebrities to be the bearers of news and information? Furthermore, how successful has their role been in the clean up process following a decade of some of the most terrifying natural disasters in recent history? The answer is in fact very, but it has raised some interesting and complex cultural questions and moral dilemmas.
One of the countries most severely affected by Hurricane Sandy is Haiti. With fatalities estimated to be at 54, there is a dark familiarity with the grief of this loss, as the devastation of the 2010 earthquake, which left over 300,000 people dead and well over 1,000,000 people homeless, is still fresh in the minds of the Haitian people. Over two years later, and Haiti is now as broken a country as it was then, trying its best to pick itself up from the ruins. Yet the media coverage has disappeared, and along with the cameras went the ambulances, the helicopters and, as a result, our support.
Donations via organisations such as The Red Cross, Oxfam and USAID have fallen dramatically since 2010, as has government spending. The US, who promised $100 million towards the clean up process have only released a fraction of the amount to the Haitian people. With over $1.1 billion raised in aid by the US people, to this day, only 6 per cent has been made available for the Haitians. Due to Tropical Storm Isaac and now the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, there are still over 370,000 people living in tents, but media coverage has practically disappeared. Why is it, that today we need to see images of people suffering to act?
This seems to be where celebrity culture steps in. Celebrity presence within journalism is a defining aspect of our time, and has been argued by sociologist Charles Ponce de Leon to be the way we “measure character, happiness and importance” in the news today. Morally right or wrong, it cannot be argued that events such as ‘Hope for Haiti Now’ – the telethon and concert spearheaded by George Clooney and involving 107 other celebrities – are incredibly successful in raising both awareness and money fast when needed. It is that instant access between celebrities and their fans, through social media spheres such as Twitter, which helps provide an immediate response.
In many ways, ‘Hope for Haiti Now’ was a humbling message, that in times of tragedy, wealth and ‘celebrity’ become irrelevant in the united effort for good. George Clooney spoke of the universality of the Haitians’ pain and suffering when he stated in 2010 that “this is a tragedy that reaches across all boundaries” and that the Haitian people “need to know they are not alone”.
However, many have argued that with increasing reliance on celebrity culture within journalism and news coverage that we tend to glamorise and consequently shift the attention of the catastrophe from the sufferers to the celebrities themselves. In many ways, the heavy presence and dependence on celebrities for knowledge and information belittles the presence of thorough and important sources, such as the news. Indeed, we begin to think that celebrities have the same expertise or understanding of these events as educated journalists, academics and politicians. In the famous (no pun intended) book Celebrity Culture by Ernest Cashmore, it is said that “celebrities offer themselves for acclaim rather than actually accomplishing something that might merit this”
With more and more celebrities becoming politically active, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Alec Baldwin and George Clooney, it is clear to see how this statement might become true as the lines between two completely different social spheres become blurred.
This can be a dangerous line to cross because, however well-informed a celebrity may or may not be, the hype and hysteria which comes with their fame can often be as misleading as it is helpful. Examples of this are easy to find, as Justin Bieber was quoted by Rolling Stone magazine in 2009 saying: “I’m not sure about the parties. But whatever they have in Korea, that’s bad”.
This insightful comment could be taken lightly were it not for the fact that the Bieber was named the third most powerful celebrity in the world by Forbes in 2012. With over 30 million followers on Twitter alone, listening and reacting to every word he says, I am afraid this statement cannot be taken lightly under any circumstances.
Celebrity involvement can also result in the spreading of falsified or doctored information, and feed the assumption that money and wealth is the only way to make a difference in countries torn apart by natural disaster. Don Miller, American writer and activist, states that aim of the American people should not be “to gain attention or praise for what we’re doing”, but rather to actively support those in need, in as small or as big a way as possible.
Equally, the assumption is often made that we often disregard or look over natural disasters which do not immediately concern us. Outrageous as this accusation may be, the USA and Great Britain specifically have had history in giving bountiful aid to countries that have a direct impact on trade or economic links, whilst plainly ignoring other catastrophes around the world. When we look back over the past decade in terms of natural disaster, we think of the Japan earthquake, Hurricane Katrina or the Dresden floods.
However, those which do not spring so readily to mind are disasters such as Kashmir earthquake of 2005 which killed over 73,000 people, the Mumbai floods which affected over 20 million people and Cyclone Nargis of 2008, which killed 138,300 people and affected a total of more than 24 million people.
Although millions of dollars in aid were released by the US and British governments towards the recovery of all of these tragedies, not nearly as much was given compared to countries with whom they had a direct political or economic relationship. Furthermore, media coverage and celebrity involvement with these natural disasters was minimal. How do we decide what deserves our attention and what doesn’t?
Bearing all this in mind, is celebrity involvement and social media really a force for good, or rather a morally ambiguous tool, hindering people from making their own conclusions in the face of disaster? The good that celebrity culture has caused in the aftermath of recent natural disasters in Japan, Haiti and now New York cannot be denied. Social media tools such as Twitter have allowed a constant flow of information be made readily available to the public, and has helped shorten the distinction between fame and normality. But nonetheless it is a scary thought that our society’s biggest motivation in giving aid to disaster stricken countries is not through the sheer horror of the event, rather the level of bombardment we are given by celebrities.
If this is true, then it is not celebrity involvement, but rather our perception of celebrity culture which needs to change. And whilst that happens, I am left struggling with the possibility that the future of journalism may lie in the hands of Kim Kardashian and her Twitter page.