Journalism

Journalism and the Sacred Work of Disseminating Knowledge

Image via Brian A Jackson/shutterstock.com

Image via Brian A Jackson/shutterstock.com

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.

A Newsfeed of Fear

I GREW UP terrified, my childhood catechized by the violence in Northern Ireland, each week a litany of murder. I grew used to the idea that killing was the story of our lives. This, of course, was not true—there was also beauty and friendship all around us, all the time, not to mention eventually a peace process that has delivered extraordinary cooperation between former sworn enemies.

But the way we learned to tell the story—from political and cultural leaders, religion, and the media—emphasized the darkness. It’s been a long and still ongoing journey for me to discern how to honor real suffering while overcoming the lie that things are getting worse.

Today, many of us are living with a fear that seems hard to shake. Horrifying, brutal videos, edited for maximum sinister impact, showing up in our newsfeeds are only the most recent example of how terror seems to blend into our everyday lives.

But things are not as bad as we think. What social scientists call the “availability heuristic” helps explain why we humans find it difficult to accurately predict probability. In short, we guess the likelihood of something happening based on how easily we can recall examples of something similar having happened before. Because of this, folk who get a lot of “information” from mainstream media may tend to overestimate the murder rate: Most of us have seen vastly more killing on TV than would ever compute to an accurate estimate of real-world rates of killing.

Globalization and cyberspace bring more images and stories than our brains can handle, blending them with our lives to the extent that we consciously have to work to create boundaries between our screens and our psyches. One consequence is that people are skeptical when told that violence has been declining over time, and we are living in what is probably the most peaceful era human beings have ever known. But it’s true.

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Weekly Wrap 11.7.14: The 10 Best Stories You Missed This Week

 1. GoldieBlox Releases Action Figure for Girls
“Fashion dolls teach girls to value beauty over brains. One is sold every 3 seconds.” That’s how the ad releasing a new action figure for girls opens. Looks like Barbie and Bratz dolls have some competition.

2. On the 25th Anniversary, Stunning Before and After Photos of the Fall of the Berlin Wall
Sunday marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. These photographs capture how life has changed in the past quarter century.

3. Gerrymandering Rigged the 2014 Election
“There are a lot of structural issues that influence congressional elections, from voter ID requirements to early voting access. But what does it matter if you’ve been packed into a district in which your vote can’t change the composition of Congress?”

4. Victoria’s Secret Got the Memo, Changed ‘Perfect Body’ Campaign
This isn’t the first time Victoria’s Secret got a marketing campaign tagline a little twisted (ahem, remember ‘Bright Young Things?’) But this time, they seem to have gotten the message — from the nearly 30,000 people who signed an online petition or tweeted #iamperfect to the lingerie brand.

Elevating Our Cultural Competency: A Q&A with NPR’s Maria Hinojosa

Maria Hinojosa, left, speaks with Yolanda Sayres, right, about healthcare and education in Rochester, New York. Photo via ABTN.

“Behind every number, there’s a story.”

That’s what inspires Maria Hinojosa, host and executive producer of NPR’s Latino USA, to investigate the dramatic demographic changes taking place in the United States in her new PBS showAmerica by the Numbers. In a nation that will be majority non-white by 2043, Hinojosa’s storytelling focuses largely on the oft neglected experiences of immigrants and people of color.

Unafraid of what mainstream media too often neglects, Hinojosa’s America by the Numbers brings to life the tensions at the heart of a rapidly diversifying America. She examines not only the unjust treatment of underrepresented communities by the American government but also the cultural conflicts inherent within these communities. For Hinojosa, the conflicts between tradition and progress, community and individuality, white and non-white are not to be avoided, but rather spotlighted.

Last week, Sojourners chatted with Hinojosa about America by the Numbers and the role the media can play in welcoming these demographic changes. This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

James Foley’s Parents Draw on Faith After Journalist Son’s Execution

Video courtesy of USA Today.

They’ve done this before.

Once again, John and Diane Foley appeared on national television Wednesday to speak in clear and deliberate voices about their son, conflict journalist James Foley — only this time, it wasn’t to plead for his release from captors but to hail him as a hero who wanted to help people and to thank the public for the outpouring of support that has flooded in since officials confirmed a videotaped beheading of their son was authentic.

Standing in front of the family home in Rochester, N.H., John Foley told reporters in the kind of voice of strength he and his wife have displayed over the years, “We’ve been through this before. Let ‘er rip.”

In years past, the Foleys have taken to television to draw attention to the cause of their son, who was abducted in November 2012 in Syria and also held captive for 44 days in 2011 after being captured in Libya.

Account after account describes the Foleys as determined, faithful Roman Catholics. After their son disappeared in 2012, they launched the FreeJamesFoley.org website to serve as a clearinghouse for information that might lead to his release. In October 2013, they joined Today’s Matt Lauer to wish their still-captive son a happy 40th birthday and to keep his cause alive. Even when interviewers noted that Foley’s career took him to many volatile places, his father was quick to defend him.

'The Fifth Estate:' Is WikiLeaks Good for America?

 via The Fifth Estate Facebook Page: facebook.com/TheFifthEstateMovie

Still from 'The Fifth Estate' via The Fifth Estate Facebook Page: facebook.com/TheFifthEstateMovie

Am I the only one who finds it deliciously ironic that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange objects stridently to how he is portrayed in the new movie, The Fifth Estate? The film, which hits theaters in wide release today, turns its attention to the organization best known for publicly sharing otherwise confidential information of various governments, including our own.

Assange is clearly a study in eccentricity. From his tow-headed locks to his lock-down work environment, he fascinates as often as he infuriates. To demonstrate their displeasure about the coming film, WikiLeaks actually leaked the screenplay to the public ahead of the movie release and has published numerous corrections they deem necessary to more accurately reflect history. They have also labeled the movie "irresponsible, counterproductive and harmful,” adjectives made that much more poignant, given that similar epithets have been leveled at WikiLeaks for their own work.

But despite this latest round of drama revolving around WikiLeaks and its lightning rod of a front man, the question still remains:

Is WikiLeaks good for America?

Art As An Act of Faith

Photo illustration, © Elena Ray / Shutterstock.com

Photo illustration, © Elena Ray / Shutterstock.com

Almost two years ago, I took a titanic risk. If you look at things from an earthbound perspective, what I did is: I took my livelihood, and my children's provision, in my hands alone. I quit my job at The News & Observer, a major, Pulitzer-prize-winning newspaper where I earned a decent salary and reached 150,000 to 200,000 readers on any given day. 

The decision was a long time coming — my whole adult life, really. Before I ever started my first newspaper job in 2000, I’d wanted to help people explore deeper things than just tax policy, or crime, or environmental regulation. These just skim the surface of who we are as humans: why we share or hoard, why we hurt or protect one another, what we owe to Mother Earth.

What I found as a newspaper reporter was that I had no choice but to skim the surface of things. There’s not enough space to go deeper, but, more importantly, deeper takes you into hypothesis, not fact — and hypothesis is a leap of faith. What you find when you go deeper depends a lot on the gear you’re wearing when you dive. I’m cloaked in Bible stories and Christian tradition, and therefore I live in hope that there’s a Creator and that this God is working quietly to heal the world.

I read recently in Psalm 27: 

“The Lord is my light and my salvation —
 whom shall I fear?
 The Lord is the stronghold of my life —
of whom shall I be afraid?”

Bearing Witness in Syria: Anthony Shadid's Last Days

Two weeks ago, veteran New York Times reporter Anthony Shadid died from an asthma attack while exiting Syria.

Shadid and photographer Tyler Hicks, who had been kidnapped together while covering the Libyan uprising, were completing a week-long clandestine reporting visit to Syria, documenting the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

In the Sunday Times, Hicks told the story of that week in a long and gripping feature, "Bearing Witness in Syria," accompanied by some of his photos. The two journalists had spent most of the week with a group of activists.

Tom Wicker, 1926-2011

I am one of those who still prefer ink on paper to pixels on a screen.  But no matter how you get your news, the passing of a giant is worth noting. Tom Wicker, reporter and columnist for The New York Times for 30 years, died on Saturday. The Times described him as “one of postwar America’s most distinguished journalists.” 

Wicker was a meticulous reporter and a passionate advocate, so much so that he was sometimes criticized for overstepping the bounds of objectivity.  But when faced with the major events he wrote on, how could he not be?

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