A New York Times[i] article from last month inspired me to write about a global issue with a pernicious impact: the lack of comprehensive reportage and the passive reaction modern society has towards hard news. I believe that an essential component of effective journalism is the reporter’s ability probe beyond the superficial particulars of critical events and address the ideological reasons behind persistent societal issues. For understanding the why of a pandemic gives us the opportunity to change the collective conditioning that nurtures it.
Since this post was incited by the Colorado school shooting (and spurred even further by written accounts of domestic homicide[ii]), let us unpack how the words, sentiments, ideas, and overall gist of news coverage- despite its sensationalism- does little to discourage the widespread and devastating impact that gun violence has in the United States.
The various sources writing on the Colorado shooting covered the basic facts: the school’s location, the amount injured or fatally harmed, the age, number, and names of the suspects, and information on the law enforcement present. Additionally, eye-catching photos, engaging quotes, and intriguing recounts from the victim’s families or from those at the scene of the incident entice the reader with the trauma faced by those affected. Furthermore, heroic stories[iii] of individuals that bravely confronted the shooters or helped save the wounded are included, along with condolences for the victims and their loved ones. In some more expansive articles, a discussion about the epidemic of gun violence in the United States is incorporated (at the end of the New York Times article there is a discussion about a pending bill concerning gun safety, the history of violent shootings in Colorado, and a Colorado Representative’s advice- increased ‘security guards and facility upgrades”[iv]– on how to keep students safe from gun violence). Notably lacking, however, is a critical analysis on the societal reasons behind the epidemic of gun violence in the United States.
What alarms me about this detail-oriented structure to reporting is that for years now I have read similar articles covering similar events with a similar format: speak about the particulars using sensationalized accounts from witnesses, heroize certain members of the community, call for condolences, and briefly address the history of gun violence and school shootings in the United States- and for years now I have seen little done to decrease the amount of school shootings or gun violence in the nation. Perhaps this is because such articles have become so trite that the reactions they aim to incite have effectively been diminished by their mainstream prevalence. But I posit the reason to be more central and integral than our emotional desensitization. Modern news sources ineffectively- if at all- address the innate ideologies that encourage gun violence from a predominately young, male demographic (such as patriarchal norms, societal values of aggression, dominance, and competition, gender roles, sexualization of women’s’ bodies and personalities, female subjugation, or the discrepancy in female and male beauty standards); and in an environment where societal issues are upheld due to an inadequate understanding of why epidemics and worldwide pandemics exist,[v] our inability to access ideologically investigative news stories only fosters our ineptitude to critically analyze and address the ails of today’s societies.
Bu if our modern manner of reporting negatively impacts our collective capacity to rectify our social ails, it is imperative that we also consider the pressure put on journalists to write about the superficial aspects of newsworthy events rather than the pervasive ideological beliefs that allow them to persist.
A key tenet of ‘good’ journalism is the ability to report with impartial bias. This widely respected precedent could be one of the reasons why news stories are so superficial, trite, and enabling of systemic issues, as journalist are trained to deliver facts over commentaries. Of course, impartial bias is necessary in the way that it discourages the imposition of personal perspective upon a wide audience. However, it also inhibits the ability that reporters have to critically analyze a story, which in turn limits the capacity of critical thought in civilians who mainly use their critical analysis skills when reading or discussing politics or current events. Due to this, the lack of ideological investigative reporting makes it hard for the general population to be exposed to and- consequently- understand diverse perspectives as well as analyze and form opinions. For if expressing your perspective is neither demonstrated nor encouraged, the majority of people will become accustomed to repressing their capacity for independent thought. Moreover, when you have a general public, nation, or even an entire world order that is unable to critically analyze society, it’s also likely that such a populace will be incapable of critically analyzing their own desires, needs, and circumstances and are thus oblivious to the way in which their own beliefs have been influenced and formed by a particular cultural upbringing.
Which brings me to the divisive nature of the fast-paced, bite-sized news trend of the social media era. To say that social media is the cause of the polarized, highly contentious climate of the current decade is to skim the surface of its impact on modern media and the collective conditioning. Social media has not created a divisive public; it has only encouraged it by taking advantage of our already firmly-set biases. The leading minds of corporations such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have acquired an impressive understanding of human psychology, easily coaxing our emotional and biological responses to their natural inclinations. Since the majority of us are not trained to think critically about our belief structures and struggle to understand our cultural and ideological biases, social media platforms have wisely used psychological marketing tactics as a way to increase their global profit and power, regardless of the negative consequences that ensue. And in order to survive in an increasingly competitive market, traditional media outlets are forced to comply with the successful practices of Facebook or Twitter, furthering the surface-level trend of modern reporting.
So what are we as concerned citizens to do if journalists not only feel pressure to deliver impartial, factual news but also sensationalized bite-sized accounts of current events? What are we to do when our entire conditioning encourages us to implicitly trust the powerful cultural, political, or religious doctrines of our society? What results when a large proportion of us are unable to form a unique opinion on the current events that we witness, read, or watch? Moreover, how can we entice our critical analysis skills so that we can better understand our own biases and enter into civil dialogues with individuals whose ideological doctrine may diametrically oppose our own? And- most importantly- how can we learn to comprehensively analyze societal issues so that we can best rectify the countless pandemics and epidemics that harm billions of individuals worldwide?
To be honest, I don’t have a clear guideline. I just have the initial step in the process: encourage the general populace- journalists, politicians, judges, and civilians alike- to question belief structures, investigate into ideological conditioning, and engage in civic dialogues with individuals of differing perspectives. As a writer or journalist, I believe we can best do this by incorporating more than just the superficial aspects of a story, including the deep-seated reasons why a society is homophobic, misogynistic, racist, or pro-gun rather than just the events that occur because a society operates under assumptions that support homophobia, misogyny, racism, and gun ownership. Moreover, if we encourage ourselves to delve into our thought patterns and probe into how these patterns relate to our collective environment, we can perhaps have a more impartial take on our personal beliefs and on the beliefs of the community or nation we are part of.
And with this impartial and practical stance on cultural ideology, we might successfully mitigate our societal pandemics and worldwide epidemics by fighting it at the source.
[i] Healy, Jack and Liam Stack. “School Shooting Leaves 1 Student Dead and 8 Injured.” The New York Times. 7 May 2019: Page A1. The New York Times. Web. 9 May 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/07/us/colorado-school-shooting.html.
[ii] It is estimated that more than 1/3 (some say around half) of women murdered were intimately connected to their killer: Zezima, Katie, et al. “Domestic Slayings: Brutal and Foreseeable.” The Washington Post. 9 Dec. 2018. Web. 10 June 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2018/investigations/domestic-violence-murders/?utm_term=.575366e0e804
[iii] A day later, The New York Times published an article commemorating the student who bravely died attempting to stop the gunman (which is a noteworthy tribute, but should not be used as a substitute for a discussion on the reasons behind the epidemic of gun violence: Turkewitz, Julie, et al. “Colorado School Shooting Victim Died Trying to Stop the Gunman.” The New York Times. 8 May 2019; Page A19. The New York Times. Web. 15 June 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/08/us/colorado-shooting-victims.html
[iv] Healy, Jack and Liam Stack. “School Shooting Leaves 1 Student Dead and 8 Injured.” The New York Times. 7 May 2019: Page A1. The New York Times. Web. 9 May 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/07/us/colorado-school-shooting.html.
[v] Think of prototypical responses to school shootings such as: “Why would someone shoot up a school?” “How can people be pro-gun?” “Why is violence so normalized?”- which are essential questions to ask so long as they are not rhetorical, which the normally are- or a statement such as “Violence is something biologically inherent in testosterone driven young men.” (Which- honestly- is a likely cause of male-driven violence. But just as conforming to a constitutional amendment made over two-hundred-years-ago is neither logical nor practical, so isn’t rigidly conforming to the state humans were in thousands of years ago. In essence, fighting to keep the past the same as the future is- as Einstein once implied- a bit insane and counterproductive towards positive change.)
Smoke is a powerful signal.
And whether to ignite or extinguish it is a powerful decision.
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One potential solution is podcasts, which are taking the place of written investigative journalism pieces so that people can listen to long form investigative news while tidying up or commuting.
I’ve only listened to one podcast! I should get more into that, as I’m sure the sheer length and lack of buerocratic control helps to support in-depth conversations that can get to the source of our societal issues.
This is a really brilliant essay and I agree with a lot of your thoughts. So much of what I read in big media companies is designed to speak to what their audiences already agree with, rather than try to challenge those beliefs or deconstruct them. Everything is sensationalized with just a nod in the final paragraph that suggests the issue may possible be more complex, encouraging a very black and white view of the world. Though I should say – being a Brit I’m talking about UK news. But I get the impression this is happening in the US as well. Thank you for posting and thank you especially for including your sources!!
I agree with melanierousselfiction. This was a well-written post.
Podcasts were a solution I’d never considered. I don’t listen to them, but I may have to change that if someone starts (or recommends?) a podcast that discusses news on a deeper level.
Thank you for your thoughts Melanie!