Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Fear Part II: Nothing to Report

I remember the first time I was aware that I was acting like a news junkie. On 9/11, I was glued to the news just like everyone else at work. Since we didn't have TV's at work, those with radios tuned in to various frequencies and everyone else bounced from news or network website to another. When new information was released someone would shout it down the hall, or IM updates from office to office. Pooling our resources allowed us to create an instant update network with those at work, our friends and family around the country, etc. It meant that we could access information collectively, and that made us feel better in the wake of fear and destruction.

I'm sure I'd scoured for news in this fashion before, but it was the first time I was actively conscious of the fact. Since then, I think our whole society has made this action permanent; we've institutionalized the need for instant news, even if it's no real news at all. When I was younger, something incredibly important had to be going on for the news to break into our regularly scheduled programming: an assassination attempt, an earthquake with serious casualties, etc. The news anchor would use their most serious and concerned voice as they gave us the details. They told us who had died, how many might be homeless, what the damage estimates were, and how to check on loved ones or where to contact folks about relief efforts. They waited until they had some information so they didn't waste our time...or cause needless panic.

These days we can't just watch the news and listen to the nice anchor-folk tell us about what's going on. We have to add news crawls at the bottom of the screen, giving us every trivial fact possible about the topic at hand, or recapping what was just said. We get endless updates about inane details of Britney or Lindsay's lives and news break-ins about the latest house fire in Southern California...just in case it turns into the next great SoCal wildfire. We watch an airport tarmac, waiting for the arrival of the President because somewhere along the line, we developed not only the right to know everything about everyone instantly, but the need. And we can only hear news from pretty people. It seems every network is racing to find a buxom beauty to draw us in while reading from a teleprompter. Does anyone else remember when anchors were chosen because they seemed trustworthy, intelligent, and approachable?

I'm certainly not the only one to point out this sort of insanity; Jon Stewart often has a clip montage that shows every major network anchor spinning their wheels to speculate as to what might be happening or what might have caused the latest...fill in the blank. They dust off the nearest expert and interrogate them about every possibility, no matter how remote or premature it might be. They have to fill time, you know, because sooner or later they will get information, and want to be the first to report it. Why wait until you have something to report before you start guessing about all the things that could be going on.

The favorite speculation game is connected to fear. Weapons of mass destruction, terrorist attacks, economic crisis, swine flu...they give us something to worry about, and these days the news is designed to deliver that fear right into your home and life. During a recent White House press conference, a reporter asked about the possibility that swine flu had been engineered or released as part of a bio-terrorism plot. With a wry smirk, the talking head behind the mike made it clear that, no, there was no evidence whatsoever to even suggest that. Naturally, they continued that line of questioning. I'm sure some network pumped it up with a segment that night that said "but what would it look like if they did?"

Make no mistake, it must also be completely instant. I was talking with a photographer from a Denver paper last year, who explained that he'd been asked by his editor to cover a funeral from the inside...via Twitter. He was asked to post messages during the service, "you know, if the minister says something that makes the family or someone important break out in tears or something." He politely refused, though it nearly cost him his job. He decided it was too much - too tacky during someone's time of grief to be focused on getting the scoop. Besides...who really needs that much information from a funeral. Last time I checked, funerals weren't intended to be entertainment...or a spectator sport.

So what's the harm, you ask? I'm proud to say that when news of the swine flu (aka piggy sniffles) broke, terrorism is something that never crossed my mind. I'm sure the Shrub would argue this means I'm not a good 'Merican, but so be it. Rather than talking about ways to protect yourself from any infectious disease, let's spend some quality worrying time. We probably also wouldn't want to spend time talking about overpopulation or poverty, both of which are actually impacting the current pandemic. Or access to quality healthcare and medication for everyone. Or how what happens in another country to another group of people can impact our daily lives, so we might want to revisit this whole globalization discussion (with a President who has two brain cells together to rub together and form a synapse). I don't view a funeral as a good time, and don't feel the need to obsess over every attendee or word said at a funeral that wasn't important enough for me to attend.

Today's lesson: Pay attention to what the news tells you. Is it actually information, or just speculation? What are they not telling you, and how does it connect to your life? As mentioned in response to my previous post, critical thinking can go a long way. And take a breath, people. The latest story might actually be more interesting to you when they actually have information worth hearing. Perhaps if more of us waited until there are facts before we demand an instant update, we wouldn't go in search of WMD's that might be in someone else's country because the anchor (or VP) thinks they're good at speculating a compelling story at us.

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