There’s an old adage in journalism that if it bleeds, it leads. It sounds kind of savage and it’s often that principle people quip when complaining about excessive violence in the news.
That criticism isn’t wrong. Just watch 10 minutes of nightly news, and you’ll probably see nothing but murders and robberies, as if that’s the only thing that happens on a daily basis.
But what I think we forget when criticizing the bleed/lead principle is the inherent value it places on human life. The way I learned it in journalism school, “if it bleeds, it leads” means that people matter. It means that the loss of human life should never be something we consider a banality and that if there’s bloodshed, we, as journalists, have an obligation to report it.
In a perfect world, that would work. (Well, actually, in a perfect world, there would be no bloodshed for journalists to report, but you know what I mean.) But the problem that Gareth Higgins identifies in “A Newsfeed of Fear” (Sojourners, May 2015) is not so much the excessive coverage of suffering, but the callous coverage of it.
Instead of promoting the sanctity of life as I think it was originally intended, media coverage of crime and violence has been twisted into a formulaic script that serves only to create the must-watch, must-read news that brings in advertising dollars. And it can be hard to stomach that much disingenuousness.
Yet the solution is not a positive-news only model. There are media outlets — largely Christian ones — trying this, but I don’t think this approach adequately addresses what’s wrong with the mainstream media. For one thing, it does nothing to fix the problem of formulaic, disingenuous stories. People can fake happiness, too, you know. Furthermore, there are times when we actually need more bad news — like, for example, when black women disappear or when migrant farmworkers are being abused.
But more than that, exclusively reporting positive news robs us of the opportunity to fully love our brothers and sisters by mourning with them in their time of suffering. It robs of the opportunity to care for them, both materially and spiritually.
Jesus was never shy about mourning with and for others; he wept with Lazarus died and he lamented for Jerusalem shortly before his death. As followers of Christ, we too must weep with those who are weeping — and we can’t do that if we opt to hear less about their suffering because it’s too much of a downer. Christ must shape the way we interact with the news and, if we’re also media professionals, how we communicate the news.
I’d like to say that I know exactly what that looks like, but I don’t. I do know that, ultimately, journalists — Christian and otherwise — need to be more thoughtful and compassionate in their reporting. I mean, that’s really the problem, right? If stories of suffering weren’t presented in such an obviously dispassionate and sensationalized way, they wouldn’t strike us as so tiresome. I don’t mean to say that our hearts wouldn’t break or that we wouldn’t grow weary of these stories, but I don’t think they would generate the same indignant weariness they do today.
Most reporters I know became journalists because they truly believe in the power of information and the power of people. So, journos, let’s stop leading with bleeding just for clicks, and let’s dig back in to the sacred work of disseminating knowledge.
Likewise, news consumers, let’s not become desensitized the world around us. Yes, compassion fatigue is real, and yes, it can be hard to read tragedy after tragedy in the news — even when it’s compassionately reported. But let’s not get so jaded that we can dismiss someone else’s real suffering for the sake of our own comfort.
Changing the state of our media will take work. After all, it’s really more about changing an entire culture than changing a single industry — but we’ve seen monumental culture shifts before and we will certainly see them again. The important thing is to stay engaged.
Dawn Cherie Araujo, a former Sojourners editorial assistant, is a staff writer for the Global Sisters Report in Kansas City, Mo.