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.

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