Media’s focus on celebrity aid lessens probability of political action

Christina Breitbeil

Following natural disasters, the mass media’s focus on celebrities who provide relief instead of the victims of the crises could prevent public policy solutions from being formed, according to research by Dana Cloud, associate professor of communication studies.

Cloud said her observations of coverage of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti by “The Oprah Winfrey Show” led her to believe TV talk shows tend to exhibit patterns of “therapeutically” questioning celebrity activists about their own experiences in providing aid. Cloud said she believes this attention placed on celebrities is a diversion that could hinder governmental accountability and progressive political action.

“If we keep focusing on ourselves, politicians will not have to respond with resources and attention to disaster,” Cloud said. “In addition, a relentless focus on the self can lead victims and survivors of disaster to blame themselves for their own suffering.”

Mary Beltran, associate professor of radio-television-film, said she believes celebrities can occasionally have ulterior motives in appearing on television to discuss situations of disaster and crisis. 

“Sometimes it’s done altruistically, when an individual chooses to use her or his fame to shine a light on a social issue in need of attention, without a desire to gain from it,” Beltran said. “At other times, however, celebrities are merely attempting to improve their own public image through performing the role of the good citizen.”

Broadcast journalism senior Jordan Cannon said she had not noticed the focus on celebrity experiences as opposed to the state of the situation during the disaster, but upon reconsideration agrees with the assessment.

“I think it’s probably because the public is so obsessed with celebrities and what they are doing all the time, so, instead of focusing on hearing from the victims, they focus on hearing the faces and names they already know,” Cannon said. 

Cloud said her goal is to bring attention to these problems in order to enact structural change within the media, resulting in a tangible response from governments.

“I hope that people will consume mass media more critically and, in this instance, look past the personal tragedies to examine the real history of oppression, invasion and neglect as context for the disaster,” Cloud said. “The more informed people are, the more they might ask elected representatives to address some of those deep causes of human suffering.”