When writing my dissertation, these many years ago, I would often have some sort of disaster film on in the background. This is not so much because I enjoy listening to actors screaming violations of the laws of basic physics, geology and other STEM fields at the top of their lungs (though I do)[1] but because I tend to think of the genre as dark, absurdist comedy. Regardless of whether or not that reading is widely shared, what is a main feature of disaster films – and has been for decades – is the use of news coverage to advance the plot and otherwise give the audience and characters additional context (e.g., newspapers in Gojira, 1954, dir. Honda). But what does that news coverage, and the ways in which it is used, say about how news itself is positioned within the varying discourses of these disaster films? What does the way in which news and journalists are positioned illustrate about the sociocultural discourses surrounding journalism and journalists? When writing of disaster films from an ecocritical perspective, Schröder states

…these movies serve as reassuring rather than as critical, let alone ecocritical, narratives. Moreover, the ways in which the media and their ‘meta-medial’ representations are used within the films underline such an ambiguous ‘framing’ of the disaster: on the one hand, the movies utilize the strategies and imagery of ‘real-life’ news reporting so that the character of the disaster as a threatening possibility is linked to the viewers’ reality; on the other hand, they multiply and echo their own ‘realistic’ images of the disaster, turning the disaster into a media spectacle that is securely contained and framed as just another act of representation (Schröder, 2010: 290).

While I agree in the main with Schröder’s argument, there is more to the representation of news than her focus on ecocriticism. Thus, to look at TV news coverage and TV journalists, I have chosen San Andreas (2015, dir. Peyton) and Deep Impact (1998, dir. Leder) as both films feature journalists as characters in an ensemble; I shall also be referencing Greenland (2020, dir. Waugh) as it overlaps with both other films in different ways but, while it uses TV news coverage it does not have a journalist character.

For those of you unfamiliar with these films, both Deep Impact and Greenland feature an Extinction Level Event (ELE) in the form of an impacting comet. The former follows the US government, MSNBC reporter Jenny Lerner (Tea Leoni) and the family of teenager Leo Biederman (Elijah Wood) who initially discovered the comet. The latter film follows the family of John Garrity (Gerard Butler), a structural engineer chosen for evacuation to a bunker in the titular Greenland.[2] San Andreas features a massive earthquake along the entirety of the titular fault and follows rescue pilot Ray Gaines (Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson) in his attempt at rescuing his estranged family from the quake and its aftermath; much like in Greenland, the focus remains primarily, though not exclusively, upon this particular family rather than on the wider disaster. In Greenland, TV news coverage is used to advance the plot, give the characters and audience information and is used to reinforce the global nature of the ELE without incurring the expense of filming or acquiring and adapting stock footage. This is representative of how other disaster films use TV news coverage, though Greenland links digital and legacy media more than comparable, contemporary disaster films (e.g., Moonfall, 2022, dir. Emmerich) by showing US government alerts on phones and televisions as well as the characters reading news websites on their phones when they had mobile access.

San Andreas and Deep Impact similarly use news coverage to advance the plot and convey information. There are key differences, however, in that both use genuine news outlets as the employers for their characters, CNN and MSNBC respectively, with then-CNN anchor Chris Cuomo having a brief cameo to introduce journalist Serena Johnson (Archie Panjabi), a supporting character in San Andreas. In this film, broadcast journalism is used actively to inform others as a warning during the disaster; CNN is apparently ‘hacked’ in order to broadcast from Cal Tech where the head of the seismology department (Paul Giamatti) is interviewed between the first quake in Los Angeles and a subsequent quake in San Francisco. Thus, journalism working with a (diegetic) expert is positioned as good rather than pitting journalists and scientists against each other or undercutting expertise as a whole (e.g., Boyce, 2006 on construction and use of expertise by journalists; and Harjuniemi, 2022 on journalists’ hierarchies of credibility with regard to expertise). Deep Impact, by contrast, features Jenny Lerner (Téa Leoni), an MSNBC journalist looking for career advancement who, upon finding out she has stumbled upon an ELE, works first with the government to suppress the story for two days to give the government time to prepare, then ends up being the main anchor for the ELE coverage. Thus, things are a bit more nuanced at the beginning – Lerner meets the president (Morgan Freeman) while in FBI custody over her investigation – but the film focuses far more on Lerner’s parasocial relationship with the diegetic audience. At one point, when waiting through a communication problem with a spacecraft intended to destroy or divert the comet, Lerner says to her audience ‘We will stay on the air. We will stay with you through all of this.’

The news in general, regardless of medium, is not questioned in these films and journalists and their motivations are similarly accepted uncritically. While this is certainly a narrative function – the broadcasts are to convey information, advance the plot and make it clear the disaster is global – and broadly fits the relatively conservative and/or simplistic discourses present in disaster films (Broderick, 1993), empirical studies on news audiences have shown that audience trust and choice of media outlets during emergencies like severe weather and other, less global disasters like plane crashes is more complicated. Though it is the case that audiences tend to seek out the outlets and medium/-ia they trust initially (Potts, 2013) there is also evidence that audiences will look at a wider range of outlets, including those of different political leanings, in order to find and evaluate information (Fraustino et al., 2018). The reasoning behind this wider search is a belief that even outlets of other political leanings would have no reason to fabricate facts about whatever disaster was occurring. While there is a great deal of nuance in the development and loss of audience trust with regard to news, legacy news outlets, particularly local ones, are often perceived as trustworthy and as a form of ‘quality control’ on any associated content (Beattie, 2023 on stormchasing media and trust).

It is also now more or less taken as read that television appropriates the cultural capital of film and literature (e.g., Weissmann, 2012). What I would argue in this case is that film, especially the inherently unrealistic apocalyptic disaster films, are appropriating the cultural capital of television news, particularly regarding (perceived) audience trust and parasocial relationships (Gray, 2017; Beattie, 2023). That is particularly the case when a journalist is a character in the film. But the fact that the news coverage often begins with some inciting event being covered and surprising everyone (newsreaders included) also implies that TV news in particular is either in league with or at least not engaging in investigative reporting with regard to what they are being told about whatever ELE is imminent or ongoing. This is contra in part to the beginning of Deep Impact in which Lerner inadvertently stumbles upon the conspiracy when looking into what she believes is an extramarital affair by a member of the US cabinet. But even that aspect falls by the wayside over the course of the film as Jenny becomes the regular anchor covering the story; her plotline features discussion of the fact that she is trusted by the audience being why she was chosen to be evacuated to a safe bunker. The fact that she ultimately chooses not to go to the bunker has nothing to do with her status and everything to do with her issues with her father.[3] Thus the news industry is shown as allied, complicit or unable to engage in investigative journalism; regardless of the exact diegetic reason, it is telling that in films which tend to espouse a relatively conservative support for the status quo, journalism is neither questioned nor shown to engage in fabrication. While this can be read as supporting the public service ideal that journalism should inform the public, it can also be read as discouraging the questioning of authority, either of or by the news.

The progression of news media used in the two later films is also relevant, Deep Impact being pre-social media. Greenland, like many contemporary disaster films (e.g., Moonfall) have news delivered first through social media of some kind. The film then shifts to primarily TV news coverage, then finally radio. While this is partially due to the escalating crises as technology and infrastructure fail at the speed of plot and the characters are often driven away from shelter, it also can be read as moving backwards through (technological) time, at least in the affected area(s). One of the main themes of (post-)apocalyptic fiction like these disaster films (in addition to conservative social norms) is rebirth or rebuilding, often implied to be intended to be better than what was destroyed. Moving backwards through time regarding technology also evokes the nostalgia of a ‘simpler time’ or ‘Golden Age’ (arguably an iteration of an American pastoral/idyll) which is perceived as being without contemporary social ills. Unlike Steiner (2018) on alternate histories, however, these appeals to nostalgia do not function to question but rather to reinforce sociocultural norms when connected to the ‘rebuilding’ theme which also generally focuses upon the nuclear family unit(s) followed over the course of the films rebuilding their lives together.

Disasters are an increasingly common feature of life, meaning (amongst other things) that disaster films are likely to continue to unsettle, then comfort us in presenting a post-apocalyptic future that will be much the same as the pre-apocalyptic, but ‘better.’ The ever-changing yet ever-present news media that accompany disasters will also continue to be present in these films, illustrating our changing relationships with factual media and the ways in which it is disseminated. With the increasing rise and proliferation of digital news media, the apocalypse may not be televised per se, but it will certainly be on our big and small screens for a long time to come.

ELEs permitting, of course.


Dr Melissa Beattie is a recovering Classicist who was awarded a PhD in Theatre, Film and TV Studies from Aberystwyth University where she studied Torchwood and national identity through fan/audience research as well as textual analysis. She has published and presented several papers relating to transnational television, audience research and/or national identity. She is suddenly an independent scholar. She has worked at universities in the US, Korea, Pakistan, Armenia, Ethiopia and for a brief time in Cambodia. She can be contacted at tritogeneia@aol.com.



[1]     I remain disappointed that San Andreas (2015, dir. Peyton) did not feature an incensed seismologist screaming that an earthquake of that magnitude was impossible on a strike-slip fault.

[2]     Despite the title, most of the film takes place in the US and what little is set in Greenland was filmed in Iceland.

[3]     Everyone in this film makes exceedingly poor choices for survival.



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