Because my husband has to talk about current events and pop culture on the radio for three hours each weekday, we get four major newspapers every morning.
Trouble is, I read them.
Newspaper content has changed over the years, and now, sitting down with my mocha and the day’s headlines has become a disheartening, depressing experience.
In more civilized days (say, 30 years ago), papers never showed dead bodies. They never invaded the most personal emotional moments of victims and loved ones and horrified passers-by. Journalists reported stories with “the five w’s” in the lede, just the facts: what, when, who, where and why.
Now we see splayed bodies of children, twisted in the mud. We watch contorted faces of the truly horrified, mortally wounded, devastated and crumpled. Images that would be withheld from children a few decades ago are now strewn carelessly on the sofa.
Perhaps because I was one of those sheltered children, I now recoil in agony when I flip through the pages of the paper. “Planes Bearing Bodies Reach Netherlands,” blares a Wall Street Journal headline stretching the width of the page–across six columns. Above that are photos: “Relatives of the victims of Flight 17 wait for hearses carrying remains…” reads the caption. Do I want to witness the soul-ripping pain these people feel? How do you get these images out of your brain, once they’ve penetrated?
Next page, same section: “Hospital Attack Catches Civilians in Crossfire,” says the headline over a photo of a lifeless young man. The pictures show Gazans, including many children, either dead or terrified. Is this propaganda? If so, as a psychologist who understands that emotion trumps logic–and that visuals trigger emotions best–I am shocked at the message, as well as its frequency.
Is such astounding coverage required by “the public’s need to know?” Words with less graphic images could as efficiently convey the facts. Are photos now mandatory because cameras are ubiquitous and intimate intrusions possible? Is it because an abundance of news outlets compete for our attention, and the most outrageous are most likely to win?
All these may be true, but it seems no one considers the impact of so much in-your-face anguish, mayhem and gore. It desensitizes all who see it, and especially everyone watching it repeatedly, every hour, on a variety of outlets, so that death becomes just inert forms, mourning is what far-away people do, and we perceive the world as a place of continual peril.
Those who would be violent are encouraged by the notion they’re just another in the flow of anger and aggression visible everywhere. Or by the idea that a spectacular attack will gain them the fame they could never earn in normal life.
Yes, I could throw away the news sections of all my periodicals, but that’s hardly shelter from awareness. As my husband and I wrote in our book Saving Childhood: asking someone to avoid media is like asking him to stop breathing. Media messages are all around us, transported in the very air we consume.
The degeneration of standards of respect for suffering bothers me. Do these wailing widows want others observing their intensely nightmarish moments? Does being in a newsworthy setting automatically grant every journalist approval to distribute expressions of searing pain, penetrating loss and paralyzing fear around the world on instant video?
Too much information. Too much agony. I’m very sensitive; I refuse to go to movies with violence, suspense or slapstick, because I identify too much with what I see. I ache for the people portrayed in those news photos; I can’t just put down the newspaper, take another swig of mocha and move on.
Yet I also can’t repair the victims of genital mutilation in Iraq, or protect the Gaza “civilians used as shields” at Hamas weapons stashes. I can’t fathom the horror of bodies and debris from Malaysian Flight 17, nor stop Boko Haram from taking Nigerian towns or schoolgirls. Each of these situations is appalling, and I am powerless. Am I somehow better off for knowing about them? My heart feels weighted by these realities. I can pray, but can’t truly comprehend.
My plea for greater sensitivity in journalism, I realize, is useless. The news business always relied on shock value, but having so many outlets requires ever-increasing extremes to produce reader/viewer response. So the prospect of uplifting the baseline of printed/broadcast decency is poor. Still, discussing standards reminds us that we can avert our eyes, and judge what ends up before them anyway.
So I savor the Science, Style, Cooking and Arts sections, and get most of my news from talk radio, where the host I prefer couches his descriptions in language my sensitive ears and tender heart can tolerate. My children see this, and learn it, and sometimes even protect me from encountering the gory and gruesome. That’s probably the best any parent can do–prepare children to fend off and push back, so as to preserve personal compassion and gentleness in an increasingly frightening world.
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