Shaping Disaster Memorialisation through Media Coverage

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As our Conference Showcase Series continues, guest blogger Professor Marina Brancato, explores the complex relationship between media reporting of disaster and memorialisation in the context of Italian earthquakes.

An earthquake is a natural and cultural event and a particular moment in the history of a community because the ontological security of  human beings is brought into question.

On August 24, 2016 The Appenines region of central Italy was struck by a deadly earthquake with a magnitude of 6.2.

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A MAN SITTING ON RUBBLE OF HIS HOUSE – SOURCED FROM THE WEB

The earthquake that previously hit the city of L’Aquila on the 6th April 2009, was similar to the 24 August 2016 quake, which had an epicenter roughly 10km southeast of Norcia. The 2009 L’Aquila earthquake which killed more than 300 people occurred only 90 kilometers away.

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MAP OF RECENT EARTHQUAKE IN CENTRAL ITALY – SOURCED FROM ABC.NET.AU

While the most devastating impact of the 2016 quake was in terms of displaced persons,  309 people died and more than 1,500 were injured. Approximately 65,000 people – out of a population of 72,000 – had to leave their houses. Until today, we can count as many as 10,000 homeless people, displaced and spread around in small hotels or in similar other accommodations, still waiting to return to the their  homes.   We can consider them as perfect  ‘exiles’ in their own country.

The destruction of the city of L’Aquila and of the surrounding villages had a huge media presence, particularly represented by Italian television channels, especially in the first phase of the emergency.

The earthquake represented a collective trauma which was not only experienced directly, but also through the media. When a disaster event takes place, the media often plays a fundamental role. Not only does it inform us, but it also shapes our knowledge and our way of thinking and feeling about what has happened. The Italian media reported  this dramatic event becoming a form of media memorialization of this tragedy. Death stories about communities, hit by these  latest earthquakes  in central Italy, are used and reported  in terms of audience and political propaganda by the Italian media and broadcast on TV.  Italian media coverage reflected a change in the collective memory and imagination.

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MEMORIAL VICTIM OF STUDENT HOUSE, L’AQUILA – SOURCED FROM SKYTG24.IT

Since the days immediately following the earthquake on the 6th April 2009,  the story told through images has played a fundamental role in informing and memorializing.  Italian media, and television in particular, helped to create a media memorialization through the use of a symbolic representations focusing  their coverage on the earthquake, especially in the first weeks afterwards. However, they have not documented and reflected on the slow and difficult process of reconstruction of the ordinary citizens’ daily lives.

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The historical center after the earthquake .The Government Palace in Piazza della Repubblica, L’Aquila – photo by Simone Falso

The media coverage of the L’Aquila earthquake is an example of biased representation of the  reality of the tragic event which promoted a favorable pro-government narration. Mainstream media, and in particular Italian television, have focused  on the emotional side of  the tragedy using “sensationalist” and “triumphalist” ways of narrating stories related to the dramatic event .

I refer here to the numerous interviews, images and photographs appearing in the days immediately after the earthquake that, in many cases, did not add anything in terms of information. We can consider  some of them a particular kind of contemporary media memorialization.

While Italian television and mainstream media have largely neglected the stories, contradictions and daily difficulties of the people living in the tent camps, and often exploited their emotions, the multiple voices of the citizens of L’Aquila have found their space on the Internet, where we can find another forms of media memorialization.

Marina Brancato is contract Professor in “International journalism”  and Post Doc Researcher in Cultural Anthropology at the Department of  Human and Social Sciences, University of Naples “L’Orientale”, Italy. She received her PhD in Anthropological Science and cultural change analysis from “L’Orientale” University in 2011 working on the relationship between anthropology and journalism with a focus on the media coverage of Italian earthquakes. Her research areas fall within the media anthropology with particular interest in death and memory studies. Marina will be presenting her paper ‘“State of Emergency”: the relationship between death and propaganda on media coverage of an Italian disaster’ at the Remember Me Conference (4-7 April, 2018).

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