Saturday, August 17, 2019

The media’s sensationalist summer overshadows pivotal events



Sensationalism is a word that gets thrown around a little too often. Phrases, dripping with cynicism, like “the media sensationalizes everything,” are commonplace in nearly every conversation I have about living in the age of instant information. I find myself incessantly, perhaps hypocritically, criticizing network and cable news for dwelling on stories that appear to be tactical ratings boosters. Are journalists, print and broadcast, telling us about things that are important to know?

Since the Boston Marathon Bombings in April, the American news cycle has been buzzing with glossy stories about a likely murderous former NFL star, a sick and deranged kidnapper in Ohio, and the loss of Hannah Montana’s innocence. I am not going to try to arbitrarily designate the order of importance of these stories. And I am not suggesting that there aren’t things we can learn about our culture and ourselves by looking at Aaron Hernandez, Ariel Castro, George Zimmerman, and Miley Cyrus. However, I am suggesting that there were some macro events that were overlooked this summer because there were sexier micro events to talk about.

Two major news stories dominated June 26th 2013. Yet the shock value and celebrity of one of the stories overshadowed the enormous significance and future ramifications of the other. News programs and websites pushed consumers into fascination with Aaron Hernandez’s violent downfall before informing them about the Supreme Court’s historic decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act.

I, like many others, am guilty of buying into the media’s insinuated preference towards the sensationalized celebrity murder story above the culturally and legally significant one. I watched ESPN, read the Boston Globe’s relentless daily coverage, and gleefully analyzed Rolling Stone’s comprehensive yet partially speculative expose on Hernandez, “The Gangster in the Huddle.” Unfortunately, my knowledge of the former Patriot’s troubled past has little practical use.

I Googled “Aaron Hernandez,” and news stories from ABC, CBS and other major media outlets popped up that had been written in the past half day. I then Googled “DOMA” and “Defense of Marriage Act” and, not surprisingly, far fewer articles appeared and the Colorado Springs Gazette, Accounting Today and Deseret News were the top sources on the webpage. The discrepancy between the rates at which each topic appears in the headlines is alarming, but not puzzling.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 16,259 homicides in the United States in 2010, but we didn’t hear about most of those. But the culture of American media puts celebrity crime (especially accused murder) near the very top of the newsworthy pantheon. Sure we don’t know for certain that Hernandez will be convicted but this story doesn’t really hold any implications for anyone besides Hernandez, his family, friends and perhaps some disgruntled fans. Whatever the eventual verdict is, we will continue living our lives no differently whether Hernandez is in solitary confinement or getting high on his living room couch.

People’s lives are changing everyday since the Supreme Court deemed the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional. Gay couples in California took back their formally banished equal rights and the most powerful court in America set a precedent that scares religiously zealous lawmakers and political actors who are hiding behind an outdated, literal interpretation of Leviticus 18. This was important when it happened on June 26, it is important now and will continue to be important for years to come. The same cannot be said about Hernandez’s downfall.

Ethnocentric sensationalism allowed millions to ignore the chaos in Syria because of a 20 year old pop star’s over-the-top performance. Fascination with polarizing figures like Edward Snowden and villains like Ariel Castro and Dzokhar Tsarnaev eclipsed the removal of former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi from power and pushed the bloodshed on the streets of Cairo to the back burner. And though the Boston Marathon Bombings struck a nerve in me unlike any news story has before, should it have overshadowed the death of 1,129 people in the tragically unfathomable factory collapse in Bangladesh?

We cannot understand the macro without the micro. But dwelling on the micro is easy and a disservice to ourselves. In considering what information we consume, it’s important to remember that we don’t live in a bubble, even if it feels like we do. The world is growing smaller every day and events like Civil War in Syria and government upheaval in Egypt have serious global implications on us socially, politically, and economically.

Let’s not allow mainstream media’s sensationalist and overly domestic tendencies to obstruct globally significant events like they did in the summer of 2013.

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