Commentary: Marketing community tragedy

Sunday, May 16, 2010 at 11:45pm
Betsy Phillips

When the rain started on Saturday, May 1, I was following discussions about the weather on Twitter, where users were tagging their relevant tweets as #theOtherSituation2010, a play on how an earlier, city-paralyzing snowstorm had been referred to as #theSituation (that, itself, a reference to the nickname of a personality and his washboard abs on the MTV show Jersey Shore). People were keeping an eye on the weather, but they were making light of it.

By Sunday, it was obvious that the time for joking had passed, that things were very wrong and that a lot of people needed a lot of information quickly. Folks were worried that, without a more specific tag, something like #nashvilleflood, even if the topic trended (and thus appeared on the screen of every Twitter user on web interface), people wouldn’t know what it referred to, wouldn’t know to click on it, and wouldn’t be able to share in the information they might need.

In other words, almost as soon as the direness of the situation became apparent, people seemed to sense that we needed to market our tragedy in a way that would catch people’s attention.

I’m not knocking this impulse. It was obviously the right one. Not just because it helped organize the immediate community response, but because it prodded the national response.

On the Sunday our city was drowning, like most folks, I was switching back and forth between the local news and Internet chatter, and looking out my front door with concern. After I saw on television a building floating down Interstate 24 and heard reports of people getting swept to their deaths, I turned the channel to see what the 24-hour news channel coverage of the floods looked like.

I didn’t expect it to be extensive, but I thought there would be something.

I was wrong.

The national media later claimed they were busy with the attempted Times Square car-bombing and the oil spill in the Gulf, but on Sunday, we could see with our own eyes that they weren’t even spending a lot of time on those stories. Instead, it was prisons, Ann Coulter, or interviews with interns. Their excuses ring a little hollow. Something else was going on.

Andrew Romano at Newsweek admits as much. He wrote that the national media was slow bothering to cover us because the story seemed boring, that one of the reasons “the Nashville floods never gained much of a foothold in the national conversation: The ‘narrative’ simply wasn’t as strong.”

Yes, you may have lost your home. Your neighbor may have died. Your place of work may have been destroyed. But the national news, once it even figured out what was going on in Middle and West Tennessee, just didn’t think our suffering was going to hook viewers.

We finally got national media attention not because they picked up on the flooding but because they picked up on the anger and outrage folks were expressing at being ignored. The Internet chatter and phone calls from angry celebrities finally became something they had to pay attention to.

Predictably, that turned the story into “How did the national media miss this,” but at least they had to mention what happened to us in order to get to the navel-gazing. At least that meant people would know.

This is ghoulish business: requiring suffering people to “pitch” their tragedies so you can decide if they meet your business needs, if they will attract a long-term audience. But the stakes are so high — if communities don’t have national media attention, they don’t get donations of time and money, they don’t get widespread pressure on insurance companies and the government to play fair. This kind of marketing is crucial.

But what about the communities that don’t have hundreds of Internet-savvy people doing the grunt work? What about communities that don’t have the Internet (either temporarily or because it’s just not reached them yet)? What about places without a Kenny Chesney to call Anderson Cooper? What about towns that are just wiped away?

If there’s no one to pitch their story, does it just not get told? Is the line between news and entertainment so blurry now that national coverage comes only to the events that offer the best narrative?

I’m concerned about this from the viewpoint of a Nashville resident who wants national attention and support. But, frankly, I’m more concerned from the perspective of a person who still counts on the news to tell me what’s going on in the world. If the national media could miss a story this big, what other things we need to know about are they missing?

Phillips is a Nashville writer and blogger. Visit her at


241 Comments on this post:

By: dnewton on 5/17/10 at 5:07

I think the problem of being told the real news is going to get worse before it gets better. With newspapers declining and the will to be skeptical nearly non-existent, we are pretty much on our own. The biggest area of trouble is surely in science. I went to Knoxville to listen to Christopher Monkton explain why UT was more of a lunatic asylum than a university upon deciding to give Al Gore an honorary degree.
The brief defense of his position against Gorebull Warming was intellectually available to anyone on an eight-grade level, so I don't see why the newspaper could not have done the same thing if they just wanted to. Green Energy Mythology is rampant by misreporting the financial and physical effectiveness of renewable energy projects. Problems with the healthcare bill published on paper seem to be exposed only after it passed.

Other areas of under reporting is on the seriousness of the national debt and economics. For instance, the House held meetings last week that pretty much plotted the creation of a new government agency and bank like Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae for Infrastructure. No alarm bells anywhere in the traditional press and news went off even though panelists warned of this new bank having dangerous similarities to Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae.

By: govskeptic on 5/17/10 at 5:33

Washington D.C., NYC, Chicago, and LA are the important cities of the nation. How do I know this? The 4 major networks tell me that everyday! Let's not forget that the NY attempted bomber was mainly stopped by a T-Shirt vendor and who ran 3 blocks to alert a police officer. Watching the coverage you would think that HomeLand Security & alert federal agents did it all. I suppose this lack of coverage also shows what little influnce our local media, which did an excellent job, has with the networks in which they belong.

By: Loner on 5/17/10 at 5:39

Good morning, Nashville!

This article is a long and whiney rant, with little in the way of substantive input, IMO. I don't care about some MTV star's "washboard abs" and I really don't care to hear the author's theories about the perceived media snub of Nashville's flood. Sh*t happens.

Major stories get short shrift quite often. An attempted terrorist strike in Times Square and the Deepwater Horizon disaster stole the show, so to speak. I don't think that "marketing" of the flood played a role in the decision-making process. The timing was every sense.

Major stories often are downplayed or ignored. Last Thursday, an Israeli settler shot and killed a 15-year old Palestinian boy who had thrown a stone at his car. On Friday, the IDF killed a 75-year old man who had wandered too close to the apartheid wall, they used machine guns and a mortar round on the un-armed old man. These would be major stories if they happened here in the states, but we never hear or read about these atrocities in occupied Palestine. The Israeli hate crimes are screened out of our filtered news.

With media ownership being funneled into fewer and fewer hands, this situation will only get worse.

By: Loner on 5/17/10 at 5:46

Govskeptic is on to something there, he mentioned Washington D.C., NYC, Chicago, and LA as the big four US cities for newsworthiness I would agreee and add Jerusalem as the fifth member of the big five of newsworthiness. Those cities make the news on a daily basis, because that's where the media outlets are centered...and that's where the votes are.

By: Captain Nemo on 5/17/10 at 6:01

Good morning

By: Captain Nemo on 5/17/10 at 6:12

I think the flood was bad for Nashville in many ways. Not only in the deaths, hardship and damage it caused. It was the third major event to take place in the nation. It did not have the build up and suspense as the oil leak in the gulf or eight years of war and terror as the attempted bombing in Time Square. I think if it had not been for the other eye catching stories we would have been the top story for days or maybe weeks.

Just be glad that we did not the same effect as New Orleans and George Bush as the President.

By: Captain Nemo on 5/17/10 at 6:15

There is only one winner of the BF award for last Friday and that goes to gdia.

By: Captain Nemo on 5/17/10 at 6:23

dnewtion has already got a Fig Newton award right his bat guano.

By: budlight on 5/17/10 at 6:59

only 8 posts and Nemo has won the Verbose of the Day (VOD) award with 50% of the posts. That's the VODka award; he sounds hung OVER!

The letter was well written, exercising freedom of speech. And she's right: The media has selective attention. They only select areas that they think their liberal agenda will play out best.

By: budlight on 5/17/10 at 7:02

8 posts: capt with 4 and loner with 2 - one of which is rambling and long and makes no sense. We're not talking about Israel, but HE is obsessed with Israel. Must be anti-Jewish or something. Loner, give it a rest; you bring it up in every conversation.

I bet if the subject of the day was changing diapers, or how to apply eye-liner, or how to effectively remove a splinter, you'd bring up Israel. Get the log out of your eye!

By: Loner on 5/17/10 at 7:07

Mornin', Cap'n Nemo. Things are beautiful here on the Erie Canal..a little cool, but very nice.

They're catching pike and bass in the widewaters - the bike path on the old towpath is really catching on - cyclists from all over are coming here just to bike the Erie.

When I was a kid, growing up on the canal, farmers used to fence off portions of the old towpath, so their cattle could graze and water themselves. In those days, a mean bull often guarded the herd, we biked through those stretches at our own the right of way is unimpeded, paved in sections, with crusher-run gravel rolled hard on the remainder.

The canal runs from Buffalo on Lake Erie, to Albany on the Hudson River - that's over 300 miles. Some sections are "canalized" sections of the Mohawk River. The water flows from West to East at a mild 1 MPH pace.... just enough for a slow and gentle float trip on a raft or inner tube....and yes, I have done that. Some kids never grow up - I might just put together another raft...why not?

If I recall, Davy Crockett and Mike Fink rafted on the Cumberland.

By: Captain Nemo on 5/17/10 at 7:12

Hello Loner. We have jus t got more rain and it is muggy.

I may for go my trip to Los Vegas in 2011 and come to see the Erie Canal in its full glory. I will see how things go, this year.

By: gdiafante on 5/17/10 at 7:13

No idea that that award is, but I'll take it and put it right next to my basketball trophy.

Nashville seems to have "big city syndrome". It's just like "big man syndrome". You know, that 5 foot guy that thinks he's 10 feet tall and bulletproof. Nashville is a small city and shouldn't rate the exposure that a major city gets. Even with a flood. Cedar Rapids had 5 feet of water downtown and they barely got any coverage a few years ago. As Frankie sang, that's life.

And no, the local stations did a horrible job covering the flood if you lived anywhere besides Bellevue and Opryland. They sure as hell were tripping over their feet to get a millionaire country artist to tell us how they lost so much, but pretty much ignored North Nashville. I wonder why?


By: Loner on 5/17/10 at 7:18

"Basketball trophy"? Gd, I thought that you might have a few golden puck awards on your mantle.

By: budlight on 5/17/10 at 7:20

I saw stories about Antioch and north Nashville. What were you watching. I didn't learn of Kenny Chesney's story for days.

Let's all be critical of the news. Why don't you critics form your own t.v. station? oh, you're not rich enough. That figures!

By: Captain Nemo on 5/17/10 at 7:21

I remember coming back from Boston heading toward Detroit and seeing the sun set over the Mohawk. What a site it was.
It was something like this. I don’t remember the excite place it was but it was near the interstate.

By: gdiafante on 5/17/10 at 7:24

Shut your hole, you ancient twit.

By: gdiafante on 5/17/10 at 7:26

Excuse me, I didn't mean to offend any twits out there. I meant twat.

By: Loner on 5/17/10 at 7:27

Please do, Nemo. The last time that you cruised by our way, the canal was in the drained, winter-time saw an enormous ditch - Clinton's Big Ditch. (No, not Hillary, Dewitt Clinton the "father" of the Erie Canal). You need to get on a bicycle, or on the water to get an idea of the grandeur of this man-made wonder. No, they won't be building anything like it ever again, as Joe Biden might say, it's a big f-cking deal.

By: Captain Nemo on 5/17/10 at 7:28

It is not a good award gdia. It is Butt face award and it is me poking fun at posters that waste their time trying to carry on a conversation with a certain dupe.

By: Loner on 5/17/10 at 7:29

Glad you clarified that, Gd...I am related to the twit clan....shirt-tail, of course.

By: gdiafante on 5/17/10 at 7:32

I guess I get it again today.

It just seems highly stupid to harp about freedom of speech and then ridicule someone for expressing their views. She's a moron times ten.

There ended the rant.

By: Loner on 5/17/10 at 7:33

I like that term, Nemo, we got us a "dupe". In Polish, the word "dupa" means "ass". Yeah, we have a dupa trying to get attention, any attention, even the negative kind. All we can do is ignore the dupa.

Na Zdrowie!

By: Captain Nemo on 5/17/10 at 7:39

As long as it remains generic, we don't want to feed the disease by talking to it.

Troll can be used.

By: MamaG on 5/17/10 at 7:58

Dear Captain Nemo,
I do solemnly pledge to never win another BF award so long as I can help myself.

Loner, I watched "America: the Story of Us" yesterday and they were talking about Clinton and the building of the Canal. It was interesting. I was surprised how they were talking about the Irish workers who drank and stayed pretty drunk the whole time they were building it. It was quite an impressive feat, especially without any engineers involved!

By: house_of_pain on 5/17/10 at 8:18

An Irish man walks out of a bar...
What? It could happen...

By: Captain Nemo on 5/17/10 at 8:19

LOL MamaG.

By: budlight on 5/17/10 at 8:20

By: gdiafante on 5/17/10 at 8:24
Shut your hole, you ancient twit.

ohhhh! Geriatric abuser; bet you tied your own mother to a chair to feed her! You're so gross! That is the "g" Grossdiafante!

Mama, you are the queen of BF!

By: MamaG on 5/17/10 at 8:21

LOL, house!

Nemo, I just decided I'm not going to play in 'that' sandbox, I mean, litter box anymore! I have enough stress going on now as it is! LOL

By: Captain Nemo on 5/17/10 at 8:21

By: house_of_pain on 5/17/10 at 9:18
An Irish man walks out of a bar...
What? It could happen...

By: MamaG on 5/17/10 at 8:23

Nemo, I'm sorry but I might have to make that pledge tomorrow! Talk about triggers!

By: dargent7 on 5/17/10 at 8:23

I guess this is THE thread to be on.
I was over at the Karl Dean one, by mistake.
gD is correct; Nashville is a tiny city in America.
I thought the flood coverage was good.
The nationals and cable had it in their first break headliners/ stories.
Don't forget, the oil rig explosion was ongoing and the bomber in NYC.
Hell, I saw the Pep Boys, on Charlotte, massive flood caught on tape, on CNN.

Someone tell BudLight, Sidiot, SidneyAmes, NO ONE likes her, NO ONE supports her drivel, and NO ONE cares what she has to say about anything. She's not only dumb and senile, but a liar. Everyone knows.

By: MamaG on 5/17/10 at 8:24

Nemo, you are always right on top of things, aren't you?!

By: Funditto on 5/17/10 at 8:24

new By: gdiafante on 5/17/10 at 8:24

Shut your hole, you ancient twit."


By: dargent7 on 5/17/10 at 8:27

OFF TOPIC: Hey, How about that Lebanese Arab-Muslim from Detroit winning Miss USA?
I think Miss Oklahoma's ability to rope a steer beat out Miss Michigan's non-ability to walk in an evening gown.

By: MamaG on 5/17/10 at 8:27

Our flood even made it onto E!News, so I knew we were big-time when I saw that! What is so sad now is the heartbreak of just driving anywhere and seeing the heaps of people's lives that are lying on the roadside, waiting on someone to take them away. I feel sorry for all the people who were affected by this disaster.

By: Captain Nemo on 5/17/10 at 8:28


Just don't read what the twat has to say. Life is so much easier when you don't have read the drool. I’m sure she is trying to provoke everyone into paying attention to her.

By: MamaG on 5/17/10 at 8:28

I wondered what someone meant when they said we have a new Miss America and they couldn't pronounce her name.

By: MamaG on 5/17/10 at 8:29

Gotcha, Nemo and thanks for the advice! I will follow it!!!

By: Dragon on 5/17/10 at 8:37

The Miss America Pagent is owned and operated by Donald Trump. Any similarity to what used to be the Miss America Pagent is purely coincidental.

I shutter to think that Trump is now defining the ideals that were the basis of the crown. I don't watch anymore but this appears to be marketing and political correctness.

By: Captain Nemo on 5/17/10 at 8:39

Nashville TN is in the top 100 cities to live.

By: Dragon on 5/17/10 at 8:40

S/H/B Miss USA

By: Captain Nemo on 5/17/10 at 8:44

The Miss America incident

By: bfra on 5/17/10 at 8:57

d7 - Someone tell BudLight, Sidiot, SidneyAmes, NO ONE likes her, NO ONE supports her drivel, and NO ONE cares what she has to say about anything. She's not only dumb and senile, but a liar. Everyone knows.
You have that one tagged to a T!

By: bfra on 5/17/10 at 9:00

new By: gdiafante on 5/17/10 at 8:24

Shut your hole, you ancient twit."


As the English would say: Jolly good description!

By: Captain Nemo on 5/17/10 at 9:02

The BF awards are flying today

By: bfra on 5/17/10 at 9:03

Due to other already ongoing disasters, I think coverage of the flooding was good. Channel 2 took it a little too far, IMO trying to draw viewers for their own agenda.

By: Loner on 5/17/10 at 9:05

Mama. they claim that they would put a barrel of whiskey ot a certain spot, and the men had to dig to it in order to get the contents. It's amazing that they were able to dig in a fairly straight line.

By: bfra on 5/17/10 at 9:05

By: Captain Nemo on 5/17/10 at 10:02
The BF awards are flying today

With her mini-mind, she is probably rating her popularity by the number of BF awards given.

By: Loner on 5/17/10 at 9:11

Rima Fakih won the beauty contest. Chances are, as a Lebanese immigrant, she is Chrisytan, not Muslim. I do like her Buttafuoco.....quite evocative.