Monday, November 1, 2010

Communities of Hope

In a previous posting on this blog, I discussed the idea of creating communities – and perhaps alternate realities – through the internet, using the film Julie and Julia as a frame. This posting will continue to discuss the idea of creating community through media, albeit in quite a different form and purpose.

On August 5, 2010, a goldmine collapsed in Copiapo, Chile. Those miners who were close to the entrance of the mine escaped, however, when the dust settled, 33 miners were missing inside the bowels of the mine. Over the next 17 days, rescuers worked to find any signs of life from these trapped miners, and the world began to pay attention to what might easily have been expected to result in a massive tragedy. Indeed, as time passed doubtless many domestic and international viewers of television and readers of the news prepared themselves for the worst. When resolve began to break down a bit, President Sebastian Piñera of Chile insisted that the rescue efforts continue – at the end of the 17 days, his resolve was rewarded with a note sent to the surface from the miners stating that all 33 were alive. Ultimately, all 33 miners had been eating lunch in a protected capsule – designed to function as a place of safe haven during mine collapses or disasters – during the collapse, and had survived. Indeed, news from below the ground indicated that the miners were, overall, in better health than expected, although they were starting to run low on food and water after 17 days without outside supplies.

With this news, the international media and the international community were captivated by the tale of these miners and their fates. Updates on the conditions of the miners and the projected time frame for their rescue were nearly daily features in the international news, and certainly the story gripped Chile domestically. Over the next 52 days, the world watched in awe as small holes were drilled deep in the ground to provide the trapped miners with food, water, medical supplies, and other materials, as well as to provide the miners and their families/loved ones access to each other via video camera. Several countries sent experts to Chile in order to assist the miners with maintaining the mental fortitude needed to survive the ordeal – including those from NASA who train astronauts. At the same time, experts from a variety of countries ranging from Austria to the US went to Chile to advise on and oversee the planning and implementation of the daring rescue plan which would be necessary to free the miners.

While these practical – albeit truly amazing – elements were being tended to, the media, particularly television and internet news media outlets, were busy with a very different type of construction. As viewers from around the world began to learn of the situation at the mine they also began to engage with the miners and their plight on a more personal level. It was possible for one to encounter daily updates on the miners regardless of the language one spoke or where one was located. As an entity, the international viewing public saw the grainy images of the miners from deep below the ground and began to view the miners as more than abstract parts of the news. Viewers heard of the incredible plans to rescue the miners, that is true, but they also heard about the medical needs of the miners, what foods they were being sent, how they kept themselves active, and the details of their families. By the time the miners were freed from their underground captivity, viewers around the world knew the names of the miners’ family members, and the touching stories associated with them, from children born while their fathers were trapped in the mine to the more scandalous story of Yonni Barrios, who, it was discovered, had a long time mistress as well as a long-time wife. Within the community forged by the miners, each person had a task or function, and through the media the international community began to see the miners in this same light, as the leader or the doctor or the engineer.

More than an abstract story of a group rescued from peril after a few days at the most, the story of the Chilean miners began to resonate more deeply with viewers around the world, who developed an affinity for these men, their families, the rescue workers who were seeking to save them, and even the president who refused to give up on them when it seemed likely that they were dead.

Especially after the announcement that their rescue would come over two months ahead of schedule, the miners became an extended part of communities around the world about whom the community worried and yet for whom the community was extremely hopefully. This was to become especially true during the 24-hour period between late night on October 12, 2010 and late night on October 13, 2010, when the rescue of the mine workers began and ended. The press, television leading the way, built up to this event for several days, dissecting the science of the rescue attempt, the persons involved, and the families waiting so anxiously above ground. In the hours immediately before the rescue attempt started it seemed that even seasoned news reporters were drawn into the story, expressing both explicit and implicit concern for the miners and rescuers. Once the rescue began, it drew television viewers ranging from average citizens across the world to political leaders to Pope Benedict XVI. Coverage ranged from live television coverage to internet feed to personal postings on social media sites.

When the miners began to emerge from the ground it was to more than their eagerly waiting families – it was to the citizens of the world. In this sense, the ongoing story of the Chilean miners, from what was expected to be heartbreak at the beginning of the story to amazement and elation at the end, created a community. Although the story culminated in the rescue of the last miner and the pulling to safety of the last rescue worker, this community was created in more than a moment. Rather, it was created within the span of months, when the humanity of the miners and their situation became clear to those with access to media the world over. The customs of this community were relatively simple – hoping for the best for the miners and feeling for the miners, their families, community, and country. In essence, the law of this community was simple as well: do not give up hope. At the very moment when the rescue was to begin, for instance, some discussion was had as to the risks of the rescue effort to the miners but there was no negativity per se even on the part of the media.

From the Chilean miner example we see how modern forms of media, particularly television, can move the viewing public beyond its role as a passive recipient of the media’s message and craft a large, heterogeneous community of perhaps even unlikely members who are strangers to each other. It would be impossible for every member of this community to meet and celebrate the freedom of the miners, and it would be equally impossible for the miners to meet and thank every member of this community, yet this reality does not take away from the community itself. Instead, it reinforces the ability of media to craft a community that might ultimately be short lived but still forms a bond that would not be possible without the existence of media to act as the formative venue for the community.

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