Post originally published on July 11th 2014
Judging by the mass hysteria of Brooksgate over the last few days, one could easily think that this is a news story of life and death proportions. Indeed, from state broadcaster to the amateur hack on Twitter, the ins and outs of the five-night fiasco have been documented to death.
A few generations from now, archaeologists may judge us harshly for our apparent callous and skewed attitude to what news we deemed most important. Until today, no Irish news outlet had placed violence in the Gaza strip above a few (currently cancelled) concerts.
To take the cynical attitude, one could lament that such is the state of our society in an age of selfishness and selfies. Compassion and empathy went the way of "good clean fun" and neighborly kindness sometime last century and hasn't been seen since. Whaddya excpect in a world where kids aspire to be Kim Kardashian and lets be honest, so do the parents?
With this perspective, its a wonder such individuals don't spend their days in under-ground bunkers with tinned goods, biding time until the eventual collapse of the Western World.
Then there is the idealistic view, taken mainly by green journalists who have yet to be birthed down the media canal that the evils of the world are chiefly the result of ignorance.If only the media would expose such prejudice, aggression, violence and injustice! Then the world would be a better place! These folk are about as realistic as the bleak buggers previously mentioned and should probably head to the bunker with them.
The truth, as always, lies somewhere in between; with a bit of blame on both sides. But lets take a look at the media; everyone loves a game that blames an institution.
With the advent of the internet, many wonderful inventions have occurred. An individual has never had more instantaneous access to information than they currently do. With a good WifFi connection and the sufficient dedication, Joe Soap can learn how missiles are built, what the weather is currently like in Guatemala, how to speak a foreign language and all those secrets that Snowden leaked. The internet is a never-ending buffet of details and peoples, and our eyes are bigger than our bellies.
The founders of the Enlightenment would be delighted. Hoozah! The average citizen (lets stick with Western society) has equal access to information! Man has been freed from the shackles of religious and political overlords and can learn for himself! Except, Voltaire & Co didn't account for a key problem - man doesn't seem particularly interested.
As someone who works in the media, I've been on both sides of the golden coin; the quiet pride, sense of history and importance that comes with covering a major news story - the barely concealed frustration and despair when the major news story you're covering centers on a privileged youth getting arrested. The media is a double-edged sword and she has the power to cut you deep.
News outlets defend such frivolous choices as being of public interest. There is a difference between something being in the public interest and something being in the interest of the public. The latter provides the kind of information that could change your life, the former contains the kind of information that makes the Daily Mail so successful. The media says it appreciates the power it has in setting the agenda, but we are a commercial body that needs to make money in order to survive. Something which, ironically, since the internet, has become increasingly difficult.
The media blames the public for its shallowness; it's not our fault you care more about the birth of one baby to a royal family then the death of thousands of children in Africa, we're just responding to demand. If this were fact, it would suggest unbelievable levels of disengagement with humanity. And despite what tabloids, and the seemingly never-ending depths of human cruelty would insinuate, we are not without conscience and morals.
No, I believe that the problem has a lot more to do with context; specifically, how stories are told to us. Anyone who's ever had to sit through a monotonous speech will testify that the delivery of what you're saying is equally, if not more, important than what you're actually saying. The greatest orators of the centuries are not held in a class of their own because of the originality of their statements; public service was an established ideal before JFK asked citizens to think of what they could do for their country, Dr King did not invent the notion of civil rights.
But what both of them did was take an issue and make it accessible; they used language that resonated with their audience, they referenced history but brought it to a modern setting. They took something and made it interesting - not only to the individuals such topics effected, but to each and every person who heard their words.
If the idealistic journalist believes that ignorance is what their profession needs to battle, then they are sorely mistaken. It is a battle of indifference and this is a fight we're not only engaged in; we're mutually culpable. It is one (very) important thing to convey the facts of a story; but it's something else to make people care about that story.
Too often, news reports of foreign lands fail to provide an easily digestible understanding of either the setting or key details of events. In the news coverage of the on-going violence in the Gaza strip, it is assumed that the viewer knows the reasons for the conflict and the key players on each side. Names are referenced with little explanation, details given with minimal background. With no sense of what is normal or abnormal in the area, we listen to the bulletin that says over a hundred people have died in recent strikes with emotional detachment.
We feel uneducated or unqualified to form even a personal assessment of the situation because we "haven't been keeping up" with what's going on. In an age of information overload, it's difficult for the average citizen to "keep up" with more than one story at a time. In a scenario like Gaza, we feel under-equipped to formulate an opinion, let alone outrage, about whats happening. The whole topic appears fraught with complications and at some point, we think we missed the explaining bulletin that laid out some simple facts about the story.
A fundamental element of empathy is going beyond feeling bad for someone; it's the ability to place yourself in that person's situation, imagine how you would feel,and form your response based on that attempt at understanding. It is my humble opinion that mass news is good at creating sympathy, not empathy - and there is a strong but subtle difference between the two.
Foreign news needs to be offered in a manner that allows each one of us to humanize the information we are receiving. Death tolls become individual people, politicians become humans trying to make decisions. Gaza becomes not just a far-away place where people are fighting for religion or land - but resonates with us as we remember our own violence in Northern Ireland over religion and land.
All action begins with emotion. Emotion comes from connection. Connection comes from the sharing and description of experiences and stories. Before you can expect people to rally for change, they have to care about what it is they want to change. News should be an offering to citizens of important and remarkable information. But at it's core, news = stories - and stories are most powerful when told naturally, simply, and without assumption of previous knowledge.