Walking the Line

Our media ethics presentation is this week, and we’ve chosen to cover the topic of sensationalism(still can’t say it out loud) in the media when covering violence. This is a topic which has arisen many times over the past few years, whenever another mass shooting or act of terrorism occurs. Sensationalism has been touched on by other groups, such as the use of violent images in photojournalism. Every group has mentioned the balancing act between adequately covering an event and respecting the privacy of those involved and staying true to journalistic standards. The same balancing act occurs when covering violent events. A line must be drawn between providing accurate and hard-hitting coverage and exploiting the event to further the interests of the newspaper.

I specifically chose to focus on the massive amount of coverage which domestic acts of violence receive compared to the minimal amount foreign events receive. In particular, I am looking at the practice of using drones to strike at targets in the Middle East, a strategy fraught with error and miscalculation. Deaths from drone strikes get a passing mention from major newspapers at best, while the Boston bombing took up the airwaves and print media for weeks.

There are arguments on either side of the issue, both related to the media’s stated goal of informing citizens and covering issues which are in the public’s interests. Acts of violence which occur in the U.S. are obviously of greater interest to American’s, as they affect us directly. We all want to know whether we in danger of a bomb strike. It then follows that through learning about these events we will be motivated to action-protesting gun laws, arguing for a stronger mental health system, better safety practices. This fulfills the goal of journalism to inform and stir to action.

Foreign events on the hand have very little impact on our daily lives; a bomb strike in Pakistan, while deadly and tragic will likely not alter the course of our daily lives. For what reasons should the media cover such events then? I argue that the media has an even greater responsibility when it comes to events which are outside of the public’s eye because they occur far away or do not involve prominent individuals or places. Without journalist dedicated to covering such things, they will slip from the face of the earth as if they hadn’t happened at all.

When such an event is the death of hundreds of civilians in attacks by our own government, and when the Boston bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, cites U.S. violence against Muslims as the reason for his actions there is a clear responsibility for journalists to deliver accurate and factual reporting. More importantly, there is a responsibility for media outlets to give this information more prominence than a third page, 250-word mention. Such seemingly far-away happenings can have terrible repercussions here at home.

U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan have claimed 555 civilians since 2002, according to the Center for Investigative Journalism. And yet, 56% of Americans supported drone strikes according to a recent Pew Poll. These numbers illustrate the information gap caused by a favoritism toward domestic coverage.

Capitalizing on public outrage to move copies while ignoring less popular events which nevertheless have a huge impact on our lives here at home. I believe that the media has a responsibility to assign coverage based on impact and not on readership. The recent spate of violence offers the opportunity for easy and compelling coverage, but at the cost of ignoring harder to cover events with much greater impact.

Becoming the Story

A few months ago I watched the Rum Diary, a movie loosely based on Hunter S. Thompson’s novel of the same name. It stars Johnny Depp as Thompson, a writer who comes to Puerto Rico with the dubious goal of finding his voice. He has arrived as the sole hope of a failing San Juan newspaper. Thompson is a rogue, a drunkard, and somewhat surprisingly, a journalist.

During the course of the movie Thompson gets himself into various shenanigans involving high-proof alcohol, firebreathing, and real estate scams. He does save the paper at the end, although without seeming to do very much actual reporting. His manic sense of adventure and a somewhat suspect moral code are what carry the day.

In reality, Thompson was a journalist and a writer, chronicling some of the most important events of the 1960’s and 70’s through what he termed ‘Gonzo’ journalism. He favored a style of reporting which combined investigative reporting and elements of fiction in order to convey the emotions and impact of his personal experiences to the reader. Gonzo journalism was not hard news, it often varied from the truth and allowed for substantial recreation of quotes and characters. What it did however was allow the reader to experience stories vicariously. Instead of just hearing that a train crashed outside of Madison, the reader would hear the crash, smell the ammonia, and most importantly, find out how that affected the writer

There are obvious drawbacks to this form of journalism. Subjective experiences can be obtained through quotes, while allowing the journalist to remain objective. Getting close to a story draws the risk of getting too close and too involved. With these limitations in mind however, telling stories from a personal perspective allows the complete range of emotions to come through in the writing. Piecing together quotes and interviews is no match for someone who was actually there.

Given what we’ve been learning in class, Hunter S. Thompson seems a very bad role model indeed. We are taught to report nothing but the facts, never editorialize, never let yourself creep into a story. Thompson took an approach to journalism much closer to storytelling than to reporting. And yet he wrote some of the most influential and important pieces of the 1960’s and 70’s, such as his article about the Hell’s Angel’s in 1965, or Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, his novel about the 1972 presidential elections.

The power of his writing stems from his willingness to immerse himself completely in whatever story he was telling. We receive not only the facts but a visceral reaction to the events taking place. Thompson acts as a conduit for his stories-his reactions pour straight from the very real things which he is experiencing to us. This offers a level of engagement with the story that interviews and fact-gathering can never convey.

There will always be a place for straight news in society. We need to be informed of events in a way which allows us to form our own opinions and view an issue from all sides. The world is full of stories however, rich with detail and raw with emotion, that hard news can never hope to get at. As a public, I think that we need these stories. Far more than entertainment, they bring us close to issues in a way we could never do by ourselves.

As a journalist, as a writer, Thompson accomplished this. He brought the public face to face with people and places far away and out of reach. He did so by giving his all to a story and letting his experiences communicate through to us. This is why I admire Hunter S. Thompson. He jumped into whatever he was doing, be it riding with the Hell’s Angels or saving a struggling newspaper in Puerto Rico. More than reporting a story, he became the story.