Affluenza is sweeping the nation

The case of the Texas teen who killed four pedestrians while drunk driving and got off with what amounts to a slap on the wrist has been making its way around the internet. The teen, whose blood alcohol level was three times the legal limit, received only 10 years probation and a mandatory stint at an expensive rehabilitation clinic after his defense successfully argued that he had ‘affluenza,’ a disease caused by, basically, being rich.

The term affluenza was coined in 2001 in the book “Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic.” It is defined as a disconnect from reality caused by being wealthy, and specifically a disconnect from the consequences of ones actions. It was argued that the defendant had been shielded by his parents wealth his whole life, and therefore was not able to accurately judge the consequences of his actions.

While growing up surrounded by the cushion of wealth undoubtedly significantly alters your perspective, extending it to a legitimate condition, and even worse a legitimate legal defense, is laughable, if not despicable. It is telling that while there was an outpouring of anger and disbelief after the conclusion of the trial, an argument for affluenza as a legitimate legal defense was nowhere to be found.

Accepting affluenza as more than social phenomenon and a real disease assumes a complete disregard for basic tenets of right and wrong. I find it extremely hard to believe that the Texas teen in this case thought that stealing two cases of beer from a store, drinking and then driving was perfectly acceptable, even if he was completely disconnected from the real world. He understood what he was doing, it was the consequences that he could not comprehend. Why not drink and drive if there are no consequences associated with it? It may be wrong, but hey, it’s not like it matters to me.

As has been stated many times before, legitimizing affluenza only perpetuates its symptoms. The defendant is now even more secure in his privilege, because the worst case scenario came to pass and he was able to rise easily above the legal system and receive a punishment less than that of an inner-city kid caught selling weed.

Further reading: Jessica Ann Mitchell portrays excellently the the inequality which the affluenza decision perpetuates.

Mandela

After the passing of Nelson Mandela last week there was a rush, a competition even, to commemorate him in the most superlative way possible. Everyone from Barack Obama to Rush Limbaugh released a statement marking his passing. Mandela was ‘a great liberator,’ the ‘hero of the apartheid struggle,’ even ‘the first politician to be missed,’ according to The Onion.

Statements such as these are natural in the wake of death-its never correct to speak ill of the recently deceased. They also function as a kind of balm for our own sorrow. In remembering someone’s accomplishments we are able to celebrate all they accomplished. In the case of Mandela there was certainly much to celebrate.

But along with the praise and hyperbole there was a smaller yet necessary call to remember Mandela as the man he really was. Mandela did not always conform to U.S., and certainly to right-wing, views, as would be easy to believe from the tributes following his death. He embraced Fidel Castro and Muammar Gaddafi, denounced the U.S.’ labeling of bin Laden as a terrorist without due process and criticized the Iraq war.

Mandela was a freedom fighter and a passionate supporter of human rights his whole life. The United States has not always been so magnanimous. Racism and inequality still run rampant. Mandela was never shy of calling America on its failings-whether claiming brotherhood with Detroit auto workers or addressing the “cancer of racism” during a speech in New York City.

The push to remember Nelson Mandela as a constant and sometimes controversial revolutionary was much larger than for some other leaders, making its way into the headline sin some cases. Musa Okwonga wrote a particularly poignant essay on the need to brand Mandela as a virtuous hero stepping straight from a fairy tale to save humanity.

In the end, Mandela was a hero, but one of an altogether human variety. His views may have clashed with America’s, but the failing was ours and not his. He was guided by an unfailing sense of outrage at the inequalities which still exist and are even perpetuated by our unwillingness to acknowledge them. Mandela’s legacy should be that of a tireless activist and leader who was unafraid of condemnation and punishment; not an angel hovering above us, but a human working with us.

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.

Coverage of the DC Navy Yard shooting

The recent tragedy at the Navy Yard in Washington DC came as a shock to me, as any violent act of this magnitude does. We ask ourselves again how something like this could happen, a question we seem to ask ourselves more and more often.

My first information about the shooting came in the form of a ‘Breaking News” headline from the CNN widget on my igoogle homepage. As I checked back throughout the day more information trickled in from various news outlets. The events of that morning were beginning to be pieced together as information about the number and status of the victims came out and later in the afternoon as the suspect, Aaron Alexis, was identified and his background revealed.

I looked at three media outlets, CNN, MSNBC, and the New York Times in order to compare and contrast their coverage of the shooting. CNN offered a straightforward account of the shooting, arranged in a martini glass story form, editing their article to include updates as the identity of the shooter and information about the victims was revealed. MSNBC took much the same approach to covering the story, adding updates as the day wore on as well. The New York Times piece I looked at was a live blog of the story, incorporating social media updates as well as eyewitness accounts as more information came out.

Both CNN and MSNBC took a similar approach to covering the story. Each source gave roughly the same information from the same sources, understandable given that these were likely the only sources available immediately after the shooting. CNN gave more complete quotes, although MSNBC gave more information about the victims, including the fact that one was a law-enforcement official. Both made use of eyewitness accounts to piece the timeline of the shooting together.

MSNBC chose to include a lengthy quote from the DC Representative to Congress which didn’t directly impact the story at the beginning of the article, which I felt deflected somewhat from the impact of the story. CNN’s coverage gave a more direct account of the story, starting with an overview of what happened, describing the number and status of the victims, giving all known information about the suspect, and then addressing ongoing events related to the shooting.

Both outlets did a good job of providing new information as the day progressed, updating their stories as needed. They also avoided speculation or hype when information was lacking.

The New York Times article I looked at took a live blog approach to reporting the story, starting with when the story broke and following it closely as the government and the police released information. The New York Times blog made heavy use of Twitter posts as a source of information. This approach allowed for extremely timely reporting, but could have propagated inaccuracies. However, as the majority of the Twitter posts cited were official feeds, I feel that the opportunity to have up-to-the-minute information outweighed the risks, especially if sufficient fact-checking was done. The Times’ blog was organized much like the reporting from CNN and MSNBC, with an initial report of a shooting followed quickly by information about victims. Official responses to the shooting were relayed as they emerged, and eventually the identity of the suspect was revealed.

In all, I thought that the CNN piece offered the best synopsis of what happened, due to the organization of the story and the abundance of eyewitness accounts used to piece together what happened. The New York Times gave the best minute-by-minute coverage of the shooting however because of their use of Twitter and other outlets to gain quick access to information.

The New York Times vs. Buzzfeed

The biggest problem I have with the news today is the commercialization and sensationalism of news stories. Sites like buzzfeed or reddit offer content which touch upon current issues, yet offer little explanation or in-depth coverage of a topic, relying instead on attention grabbing headlines and quick-hit lists which often look meaningful, but offer little of substance.

I myself am by no means above spending a few hours on buzzfeed, but I must remind myself to be careful. Nuggets of entertainment like “26 Issues the United States are not totally united on” can stand in for actual reporting and give the false impression that you are keeping yourself informed about the world. Articles like this are the literary equivalent of junk food, they fill you up but leave you hungry for more half an hour later. Continuing with the simile, an article from the New York Times about the ongoing crisis in Syria offers in depth reporting about an event which could impact international relations for decades to come.

Articles from the New York TImes and similar publications can be long and sometimes dense, meaning that they require more effort than your typical buzzfeed post. The nature of the Internet is such that quick gratification is prized over lengthy explanation. It is often hard for me to read through an entire article from the Economist when a thousand entertaining lists about celebrity dogs are a click away.

In order for the New York Times, and buzzfeed even, to survive, a common ground must be found. As print publications have repeatedly found, transferring their format to the Internet is hard. Media native to the web have a much easier time of attracting followers, simply because they utilize the Internet’s strengths much better. The use of links, info-graphics, and interactive apps is key to garnering hits. At the same time, the content must exist as well; you can only make celebrity dogs sound so exciting. For the sake of their survival, and for our sake as well, both buzzfeed and the New York Times should take a hint from each other. Steps have been made in this direction; buzzfeed offers actual news stories, and the Times incorporates interactive features and graphics into its online stories. But I think that there is much more that could be done. Could a hybrid of buzzfeed and the New York Times be the future of the online media?