overthinking the idiot box

April 18th, 2005

What News is Good News?

by Tara Avery

Now, the following information may prove shocking to those of you with a TiVo at your beck and call, taping entire seasons and obeying the commands of your Wishlist, but„now wait for it„my mother does not subscribe to cable and so has precisely two television channels. Three if you count French TV5, which we don't. On these two channels, I discovered while a houseguest for the month of January, there is a surprising array of one type of programming in particular. Not soap operas or teen dramas„we are talking about the CBC here, after all„no, the program that rules the airwaves is none other than The News. Early News, Morning News, Mid-Morning News, Noon-Hour News, Early Evening News, Evening News, Late Night News, Late-Late Night News. And I'm not even including various borderline news programs like Extra or Entertainment Tonight.

During this month, trapped in the house by minus thirty (Celsius!)temperatures and with only these two channels to keep me company, I came to truly hate the news. What had been a lifelong dislike matured into full-fledged loathing.

Close your eyes. Pull up some happy image brought to you by your local news show. Any happy image. Just give it a try. Chances are you'll be able to call up countless images of death and despair: a vacant-eyed parent holding their dead child in the wreckage of a Southeast Asian home; children wearing only their underwear, removed from a Russian school on stretchers; planes crashing into buildings, the flutter of falling papers and bodies. The news would have us believe that for every random act of kindness or tale of survival against all odds, there are a hundred variations on the theme of misery, and their mandate is to make the viewing public aware of each and every one.

In the wake of the tsunami tragedy in Southeast Asia, between reruns of Oprah and The Simpsons, my mother's two channels replayed the same bulletins hour after hour, day after day. Having left Thailand scant hours before the earthquake, I will admit I was particularly affected by this news. Yet, apart from the steadily growing numbers of dead and missing, there was really no new information until amateur video footage began to emerge. The world watched in horror as giant waves swept into Thai resorts and Indonesian villages. People struggled in the water, screaming. And I thought: this is not news. These people are dying. These people are dying on television and we're not talking CSI. These are not actors safely strapped into harnesses. I wondered if any of the drowning were the Swedish tourists I'd met only days before, the ones who said they were spending Christmas on Koh Phi Phi.

While people around me declared, "Well, aren't you the lucky one?" I was bombarded by constant imagery from a once-beautiful, familiar land torn asunder. I thought watching the news would make me feel closer to the devastated place I had just left, when, in reality, sobbing in front of the same terrible footage shown over and over was more like picking a scab. I didn't begin to heal until I forced myself to turn off the television and walk away.

I fully believe there are moments in a human being's life„any human being, regardless of economic or cultural status„that are sacred. It is deeply offensive when the news reporter approaches a grieving parent, an orphaned child, or even celebrities in the midst of a divorce, and begins to ask an interminable series of personal questions. Behind every titillating tale is a real victim.

Reporters and their news programs are so desperate to find the exclusive—to be the first to bring some small nugget of information to the public — they no longer respect the mores of human decency. It is voyeurism at its worst. Safe in our living rooms a thousand miles away, we watch in dismay — "Isn't this terrible?" we ask. "Isn't this tragic? Pass the popcorn." — and, as in the case of the tsunami disaster, perhaps we even open our wallets. It makes us feel better. It's the least we can do.

And then what? When the story has been mined for all its worth, when the ground has stopped shaking and the smoke has cleared, the news reporter disappears, and takes with him his publicity and the eyes of the world. Out of sight, out of mind. Yes, thousands of children were left orphaned and homeless after the tsunami. Canadian laws were altered to make overseas adoption less complicated. Yet a million children die in Africa every year because they have no food and there is no one fighting to adopt them. Who is telling their story? Why are the eyes of the world not focused on them? Now, four months after the tsunami, the attention of the media - and the public - has begun to wane. The number of dead has stayed relatively the same for weeks. There is no longer any hope for heartwarming tales of survival. What was a shocking tragedy, brought to us in color and almost-real-time, has become merely a footnote. A sepia-tinted photograph that might make us stop and shed a tear if ever we remembered to look at it. In a year or two there will still be orphans in Southeast Asia. We will no longer be reminded of their existence every time we turn on the television. Their faces will join those of the African orphans,relegated to the desperate appeals of World Vision.

Knowledge of the tsunami led people to acts of great generosity. The advent of the televised Amber Alert has saved the lives of kidnapped children. People across the world raged and grieved when the twin towers fell in New York City, sending money and offering donations of blood and aid. Yet this initial important conveyance of information invariably descends into sensationalism as the vultures circle, waiting to wrestle that last scrap of meat from an already bare bone. There must be a place to draw the line. I think, perhaps, rather than 24 hour networks desperate for ratings and exclusives, we ought to return to the six o'clock news hour - a universal time for seeing what is going on with the rest of the world, for being thankful, for being generous, for grieving with our fellow human beings. Above all, this hour ought to be handled with grace, delicacy, and compassion. These are people already suffering and, regardless of being televised, their grief is real and sacred. I know I would want as much, if I was ever to find myself on the wrong end of a newsman's camera. I think it's safe to say we all would.

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Return to Vol. 1, Episode 2.