No story runs for ever - not even this one

Day after day, front page after front page. Now editors are facing a new set of decisions
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The Independent Online

By the end of the week normality was returning. The Times and The Daily Telegraph were leading their front pages on the Brown-Blair feud, and The Guardian was majoring on "Brown's plan for world poor". Only The Independent, of the qualities, was sticking with the tsunami. The Daily Mail, earlier in the week, had the questionable "courage" to move on to council tax rises, and by Friday The Sun felt its readers would be more interested in the engagement between Cameron Diaz and Justin Timberlake.

If you sought a single example of the tension between a) the need to continue recognising that only one thing mattered and b) the pursuit of audiences, then TV provided it on Thursday night. At 9pm you could choose between an hour of The Killer Waves: a Real Story Special on BBC1 or an hour on Channel 4 of Celebrity Big Brother. Lest we get too snooty about the latter, note that The Guardian put Big Brother on Friday's front page.

"Compassion fatigue" is one of those dreadful phrases that make you cringe, yet accurately describes a condition. The strapline in the Mail on Friday was significant: "Tsunami: The aftermath". When we move from the event itself to its aftermath we are getting back to normal.

Of course "normal" is a wholly inappropriate word to use in relation to a disaster of these proportions, where the aftermath will last for years (for ever for some) and the consequences will continue to be unimaginable to those of us not directly affected. But for the media, the far-away media, everyday life is very different.

The front-page story of a national daily, by one definition, declares what that paper judges to be the most important story that day. It seldom is, or every paper would always lead on famine, war or global warming. The lead story, in reality, is the story the editor of that paper considers the one most likely to interest its readers, and thus sell most copies. The market has sectors and, in some of them, celebrity sells more than politics. That is why the Daily Mirror's flirtation with being a serious tabloid and concentrating on Iraq was unsuccessful.

The tsunami coverage has been through four phases. The waves themselves and the devastation they wrought; the growing realisation of the scale of the death and suffering; the generosity of the ordinary people of the advanced world; the entry of the politicians and their tawdry competition over aid and silences. Now there is phase five, aftermath.

We have had disasters with a huge death toll before. Earthquakes in Iran; floods in Bangladesh; famine in Africa; Aids. None has had the meta-coverage of the tsunami. There are reasons for this. The scale of the tragedy is not the only one. It was Christmas. The public was switched off from work and everyday life, and conscious of family and the fragility of what we find most important. There was also modern communications, which made accessible these remote places where the infrastructure has been destroyed. And there was, too, the inclusion of "us" among the victims. These were the distant resorts that have become popular. And the gap-year trails. So, while the coverage has been as extensive as any we have known, there has at times been the disturbing feeling that it has been influenced by its relevance to us. The Killer Waves concentrated on European, mainly British, victims and survivors and helpers.

There has been brilliant reporting, and there has been a real connection with the public, evidenced by the volume of charity donations. This time the public has set the agenda. The media sensed this early on and responded. The politicians were slower, and were driven to respond. But like so much news, the tsunami will slip down the agenda long, long before its effects are over. The immediate and close to home will pre-occupy us, and the media will reflect that. The aftermath is under way.

¿ The tsunami demonstrates again that there is another media world out there now where internet and mobile are as active as the traditional media. The tragedy has produced blogs (web logs) by the score, with ordinary people recording their accounts of events. Then there are the scores of text messages and pictures of unidentified children whizzing around the world with requests for information as to who they may be. One such reached me. Under the message: "Looking for his family" was a picture of a boy of about two from Khoa Lak. "Nobody knows who he is. Can anybody help?"

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield

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