By Sasha Hassan
The Wildcat Tribune (San Ramon, California)
It’s a human flaw: our tendency toward things that are attractive.
It happens every day. We pick the brightest fruit or swivel our heads for a second look at a bright sweater. We steal a cursory glance at a billboard, mesmerized momentarily by its exciting colors before we keep driving. But our neglect of the plain runs deeper than fruit and fashion. It dictates our understanding of the world as we know it.
Advertisers and artists alike know this, as well as any major news outlet. Mainstream media is often berated for this very inclination. They’re accused of using tragedy or drama to benefit themselves. In a way, that’s true. The media often spend excessive amounts of time focused on tragedies or natural disasters that could likely stand to share some screen time with other occurrences.
This media sensationalization manifests in a variety of ways. One of the most notable is what I call “disaster porn” — news that excites human passions but isn’t necessarily substantial. It also commonly exists as the dramatization of the mundane.
Our disproportionate attentiveness with respect to these events is dangerous because sensational stories often monopolize our focus and shut out news that is more relevant to ourselves. Think of mainstream media finding arbitrary reasons to attack politicians — even if it’s devoid of substance, media outlets will happily cover the story.
The unfortunate truth is that not all stories that deserve attention can compete with these bigger, flashier stories. Many articles with merit simply can’t draw crowds like natural disasters or cute animals.
For example, in our last issue, our editors-in-chief covered Chinpreme, an infamous school movement centered around a single senior student that rapidly gained traction earlier this school year. It made a rather flashy front page and piqued the interest of many. Much to my dismay, however, I noticed that many did not read beyond the front page article. People ignored equally important articles about poverty in favor of a more entertaining, frivolous article.
That’s not to say, of course, that flashy stories are unimportant or overrated. Stories with a shock factor or with more personal stories help humanize conflict. They garner sympathy for the downtrodden and can inspire drastic shifts in public opinion. A gut-wrenching story on the brutal reality of leukemia might lead to more people donating toward cancer research. After natural disasters, many often line up to donate to blood banks, likely in part due to the media coverage of the event. Of course, raising awareness is important. The issue arises when these stories become the only ones that raise attention.
I’m not advocating a complete removal of “disaster porn” and similarly sensational work. After all, they still generally have an important story to tell, in their own way. I am not asking for the mainstream media to change either. It’s only giving the people exactly what they want (their large viewership can attest to that). I’m simply asking everyday readers who dutifully tune in to CNN or scan headlines on their phone every morning to change. It’s nothing drastic. Perhaps I’ll just challenge them to read one boring article a day. (And yes, I mean the entire article. No cheating.) Something you wouldn’t normally read because it seems too alien a concept or too boring to catch your eye at the moment. For me, that challenge manifested itself today when I read the article “Belgian judge releases ex-Catalan leader Puigdemont.” Not particularly interesting, but important nonetheless.
When you push yourself outside your comfort zone, to look beyond thrilling first impressions, and instead seek substance, you may find yourself a little more informed on something new, whether it be inflation in Zimbabwe or a new local business.
So maybe the article in your local school paper about recycling doesn’t make you do a double-take. Maybe you don’t swoon over the district attorney election. That’s okay. It doesn’t mean it’s not worth reading about, however. If we strive to balance the exciting and the mundane, perhaps we can shift the boundaries of our ignorance to encompass a territory of more worthwhile knowledge. Perhaps if we start to look for stories that appeal to us beyond their shock value, mainstream media will start meeting us halfway and stop letting flashy stories monopolize screen time. Regardless of whether or not they do, being just that much more informed, I like to think, makes all the difference.
Featured Image: agan harahap