If you’ve ever been to the Judgement Free Zone of Planet Fitness you would know that in addition to their free Tootsie Rolls and Pizza Mondays, most of their gyms have a row of televisions in front of their treadmills, ellipticals, and exercise bikes.
The TVs are set to a variety of channels usually including the staples like ESPN, HGTV, and ABC. And of course, they always have on both CNN and Fox News.
I would often be listening to music or a podcast, but every so often I would take a look up and see what the banners at the bottom of each channel’s screens indicating they were discussing. The ironic thing about being able to watch both channels at the same time was being able to see two incredibly different messages about the same event. Whether it was the Brett Kavanaugh hearing, Dayton and El Paso shootings, Freddie Gray incident, or the latest political or economic developments, these two news providers rarely presented the same take on the same event that we were all watching.
They serve as a clear indication of the divide we all are wrestling with today. How can we see the other sides viewpoint? Can we have good, meaningful, and respectful conversation? I think we can even though the news can make it very difficult for us to get there.
how is the news different today?
Consider how long the news used to take to get around the world. Prior to the telegraph and the photograph, stories took significantly more time and effort to communicate over distance let alone publish, print, and distribute.
I cannot honestly say that it is all doom and gloom when it comes to the news. Today, the news does a great job of providing us with stories from all across the globe. Today stories are heard from people who previously would not have had the means to do: the downtrodden, the outcasts, the oppressed, and those tucked away in the farthest reaches of the globe. Where previously, the economics of getting a story out would have been cost-prohibitive for these people, today they have a microphone to quickly reach out to the greater society outside their immediate community.
Additionally, we can’t help but ponder the benefits of being able to engage with people of other nations. Within the past century, we have gone from not really understanding many of the people from other corners of the globe, to being able to communicate with them with ease. This connectivity has in many ways helped us to a greater extent “humanize” the strangers that we would have never met or interacted with previously. These technologies have provided great benefits to society and we cannot forget that.
Similar to the introduction of the printing press, the telegraph, photograph, television, and now the internet that have drastically changed the pace at which we receive our news. Stories and photos are now, to exponentially greater degrees, able to be mass-produced and distributed. Instead of the daily periodical, news runs continuously 24/7 and now an article published a day ago (sometimes even hours or minutes) seems like ancient history.
However, as it is with most new technologies, there is almost always a flip-side to its introduction to culture or at least unforeseen side effects. Consider how automobiles allowed for quicker and more enjoyable travel, but also changed dating forever and brought about the automobile accident and the need for new infrastructure. Or how even something as seemingly trivial as a clock and our ability to measure time can change how we interact with nature, the seasons, and how we structure our days. New technologies inevitably cause changes in culture.
So often we hear people saying the media is particularly ugly today. Yet I think you can look into publications from early in our nation’s history like those of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton and find similarly argumentative and ugly disputes to what we find on Fox News and CNN today.
There are many implications of these new technologies, but two in particular that I think are incredibly relevant to this conversation on social justice issues. I think it’s the medium and quantity of news that is so starkly different and can present issues.
the medium for the news matters
A quick example of how the medium of television has changed our methods of communication in the past century is demonstrated by this ad for the Model T and the following commercials from 1951 and 2013 for Ford.
What I find so fascinating is how that 1951 Ford commercial shows a blend of the former paper advertisement and today’s almost complete lack of words and reliance on imagery. The narrator is walking you through step-by-step the benefits of purchasing this particular car similar to the paper advertisement for the Model T. However, the Mustang commercial has pretty much no narration, some musical background, and is basically saying this car can reflect your inner personality. We cannot diminish how starkly different these two messages are.
A literate culture prioritizes a linear thought process. It has to, because you are organizing words in publications and books in a way that constructs a logical argument. The reader needs to follow the train of thought. You may notice that the 1951 commercial’s narrator sounds like someone reading from a book or script. How robotic sounding right? However, this dialogue is a reflection of the medium that up until then was most widespread and used for communicating. Everyone to a large extent spoke that way because it was primarly through reading that they engaged with the culture. Newpapers and books offered this type of logical approach then and they still do today.
However today, we see how this new medium of television has drastically changed how we communicate because it has taken over as the primary means of communication. Most of us don’t talk in a similar way to the narrator from the 1951 commercial because television has replaced written forms as the most often used medium for communication. A shift towards the prioritization of imagery, music, emotions, and symbolism that unfortunately undermines the linear logic that used to be prevalent in a more literate society. I think we can see how our news has shifted in a similar way.
the mass production of sympathy and disappearance of empathy
I spent my last post criticizing how our political system is affecting our discussions on social reform and justice topics. But it wasn’t through the political sphere that I first engaged with the Freddie Gray story. The news got to me first. Within hours of the unfortunate incident, we were immediately presented with video and interviews from people on the ground. Journalists offering the first takes on what was unfolding.
One of the emotions that struck me initially as the events surrounding Freddie Gray’s death unfolded on the television screen was that of pity. A feeling of sorrow for the unfortunate and sad events surrounding him, his family, and others affected in similar confrontations with police. Maybe you had similar feelings. I had never met Freddie Gray or anyone in his family nor anyone who had experienced a similar situation. Yet I was saddened by the news.
The eye opening thing with revisiting my draft blog post four years later is, my sense of pity did not drive me to make any changes in my personal life. I didn’t seek out Freddie Gray’s family to offer support. That’s not to say I should have, because that probably would have come across as strange and unwelcome. I didn’t go into my local community with the intent of starting a conversation regarding police and minority relations. I’m not a cop or related to one nor am I a minority so this wasn’t really salient to me and in the busyness of live that opportunity never really presented itself. My pity drove me to nothing new other than dwelling on the sad situation that unfolded in Baltimore.
I’ve noticed for myself that pity on it’s own isn’t sufficient to drive change. It’s a passive emotion. It doesn’t help me to move towards anyone. Honestly, after a few weeks following this event, I had largely forgotten about it. Even when visiting the city a few years ago, I can’t recall this event popping into my memory. It took me rereading my post to remember.
Neil Postman in his book “Amusing Ourselves to Death” said the following of how our news functions today:
“Since we live today in just such a neighborhood (now sometimes called a “global village”), you may get a sense of what is meant by context-free information by asking yourself the following question: How often does it occur that information provided you on morning radio or television, or in the morning newspaper, causes you to alter your plans for the day, or to take some action you would not otherwise have taken, or provides insight into some problem you are required to solve?”
I don’t share this quote to reduce the significance of a lost life. Quite the opposite. My point is what he mentions in the beginning. That what we now consider a neighborhood is what we could really call a “global village.” We used to only have the ability to interact with our immediate geographic community. When we would have heard of a death, it was almost always someone in our community and therefore we could in person provide support to those grieving. In that context pity can serve a role because there’s an opportunity for action.
Today though, news as tragic as what occurred in Baltimore is displayed before us on a nearly daily basis, and as a result it becomes normalized. Habits get created where the news of tragedy are routinely met with no response but maybe a short bout of outrage. We cannot help but trivialize and reduce the significance of the death when we get important news in the quantities that we are. This isn’t to say the Freddie Gray story isn’t important. It’s to say we are getting too many important stories like these with no substantial conversation happening to help us figure out what to do with all this information.
And by the next day our pity has been transferred to some other heartbreaking story. The latest shooting. The latest kidnapping. The latest murder. The news has no shortage of sad stories to share. Similar to the economics of politics, the news profit with viewership. And sadly, the tragic stories seem to sell.
A few years ago I had actually been pretty worn down with an excessive intake of the news and dwelling on the tragedies of the day. Something I’ve had to consciously try to take a step back from. My wife, Morgan shared this video with me a few years ago that she had seen in one of her classes at school. I found it quite helpful for me. It’s a short and beautiful illustrated video depicting the difference between empathy and sympathy. I would say that sympathy as described in the video is synonymous with my use of the term pity in this post.
I think television today is able to generate a lot of sympathetic responses from its viewers. The news is constructed in a manner that inundates us with context-free information and stories that will not cause us to alter or plans or come alongside those who are going through difficult times. Stories though that are very emotionally charged and the videos shared elicit responses similar to the Ford Mustang commercial.
Television turns these stories into entertainment and allows us to dwell in the mire and muck of the saddest of all tragedies that we often cannot enter into and engage with in person. Pity in this scenario only pulls us all down with no real opportunity to pull ourselves and the victims out of it. It moves us towards a state of sympathy not empathy.
The news is not structured in a way to serve us in figuring out how to think about these stories. It often does not present a logical argument for how to think about these topics and presents a hyper-emotional view on them. Even when the news tries to provide a logical argument, they are held to a 5-minute segment, which is nowhere near enough time to really get a substantial discussion going.
The news brings the miseries of the world into our living room but often makes us numb to them and provides no thorough discussion on the implications of these stories or how we are to respond. And in the process how often are we distracted with these national stories and we overlook the people in need of empathy living next door or possibly in our own household?
It’s not that the news is all bad and has no role in finding these solutions. The problem is that we have allowed them to become the primary mode through which we hear about these topics and then we let channels like Fox News or CNN construct the narrative we are supposed to believe about these topics. I just do not think the news can adequately prepare us to appropriately respond to or understand the implications of these tragedies. And when current technologies produce a more emotionally charged form of communication, it becomes much more difficult for us to have the patience to hear each other out.
So where should we go for good conversations on these topics? I will explore a couple principles I think are key to recreating this sense of community in my next post.