The first time I noticed that the media does not always accurately cover events was at George W. Bush’s first inauguration in January 2001. I was 28 years old and living in Washington, D.C., and, like half the country, was upset over the Supreme Court ruling ending the Florida recount and giving the election to Bush by a vote of 5 to 4. My friends and I decided to join the thousands of protestors that were marching on the streets of D.C. during the inauguration. When we came home later that night, we excitedly turned on the news to watch coverage of the protests, but much to our surprise, we saw barely anything on the topic. Most of the news was cheery coverage of the festivities and images of men in fancy felt cowboy hats and women in floor-length gowns and furs descending on D.C. for the galas.
It was déjà-vu for me with the apocalyptic media coverage of this year’s Burning Man, which I attended for the eighth time. Rain had both delayed the festival’s build week, which happens just prior to the main event when many theme camp members and artists arrive at Black Rock City to start building, and it put a damper on the final weekend. Heavy rains started on Friday, Sept. 1 and, although there were breaks in the weather, continued through Sunday, turning the playa into a slippery, muddy mess and making travel by bike or art car impossible. Burners were ordered to shelter in place. The burning of the Man and the Temple was delayed.
Gradually we learned how the media was covering the rain event — as a natural disaster on par with Hurricane Hilary hitting San Diego and Palm Springs last month. We heard that mainstream news outlets were telling people the National Guard was descending on Black Rock City to come to our aid, that there could be an Ebola outbreak, and that President Biden had been briefed on the issue. A few celebrities escaped on foot, which set the media ablaze with stories of Burners being trapped in a decimated city. My family was worried sick about me.
While I would definitely prefer sunny skies and dry ground, and I am sure for those camping in a tent the rains were especially impactful, I didn’t meet a single person who was not continuing to have a good time at Burning Man despite the poor weather. Everyone adapted. People put garbage bags over their boots or just went barefoot or in socks, and braved the mud on foot to visit friends, art, and generally keep the party going. I even spotted new artwork that had been sculpted out of mud like clay.
As a member of the media myself, I took from this an important lesson. The media tends to gravitate toward bad news and worst-case scenarios (remember Y2K hysteria?), or, as in the case of Bush’s inauguration, doesn’t provide a full picture of what’s really going on. It’s our responsibility as journalists not to tilt toward the extreme. If reporters had taken the time to focus on the people making the best of a bad situation, instead of rejoicing in the perceived hardships of 70,000 people stuck in a muddy desert, they may have better pierced the truth. At the same time, readers need to do their part by gravitating toward serious reporting and not sensationalized stories. Together, we can make journalism great again.