On staying informed for appearances, being conscious
What is the function of journalism? For journalists, it is (supposed to be) to expose the truth and inform citizens so they can make better decisions. And as Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel put it in The Elements of Journalism, “the principles and purpose of journalism are defined by ... the function news plays in the lives of people.”
Both journalists and consumers challenge these basic functions in an increasingly corporatized, sensationalist and spectacle-driven market. This is especially true regarding news coming from war and conflict zones. Technology is pushing photojournalism and multimedia to the forefront, and the effects of the constant flood of graphic information are overwhelmingly apparent. We’re used to hearing numbers of the dead every single day — three, seven, 25 people — it doesn’t make much of a difference if the rates aren’t considered alarming enough. No one thinks twice before sharing a video of a cop brutally beating a black man, or images of hundreds of dead bodies of Syrian migrants floating in the Mediterranean Sea. The value of a human life is impossible to measure through empirical news briefs or even, apparently, through vivid imagery. We have to go further and further to push the boundaries of what will catch attention on a purely superficial level, despite the fact that most of these images and videos are a blatant violation of people’s privacy and dignity. The humanity of marginalized minorities, refugees and victims of war across the world has become so detached from the individuals themselves that this apparently does not seem to be a problem.
Beyond the state of journalism itself is the issue of the way we consume it. Most professors, in addition to required textbooks, will also demand that students stay up to date with current events because it informs our entire education. This is absolutely true, but that should not be the main reason that you read the New York Times. What often ends up happening is that our hyperawareness manifests itself more in our casual conversations, less in our debates and even less in our actions. What is the point of being informed then, if it’s just for our own benefit? Media is meant to be more than just a commodity, it’s meant to be something that informs and motivates change. We’ve all probably read enough think pieces already about the state of journalism in the digital era, where one set of push notifications is enough to get us five different breaking news headlines from every corner of the world — none of which tell an actual story, but it’s enough to be informed. The problem is our definition of being informed. Reading about foreign policy or being updated on every presidential candidate’s platforms and criticisms seems to be more about keeping up appearances in a pseudo-intellectual college environment than about being informed for any kind of active political decision making. This isn’t to say that a college environment is inherently pseudo-intellectual, but we’re always dangerously close to making it so.
Maybe this is just in my experience as a political science student, but the amount of pretentious banter that goes on in class while we’re waiting for the professor to show up is honestly extraordinary. Media consumption shouldn’t be so self-serving. Keeping up with current events, in and of itself, is really not a goal, and I frankly find it really difficult to believe that anyone actually enjoys being up to date with the news when every other headline is about pain and suffering. It’s exhausting to hear about new casualties in Syria every day. It’s nauseating to read article after article about every new technique ISIS is employing. And yet, we have practically embraced this culture of knowing about everything and calling out those who don’t — the outraged “Why is no one talking about this?” is a much more common question than “What are we doing about this?”
If the “function news plays in the lives of people” is essentially meaningless when it comes to civic responsibility and action, then what does that say about the principles of journalism? It’s no wonder that instead of working to expose the truth, mainstream media caters to an audience that is more interested in shock value — and it’s not just about what story is being covered in the news, it’s about how that story is being covered.
The point is, don’t become informed for the sake of being informed. Make your consumption of the news worth something more than just a conversation piece. It might be cool in college to know about the world and be able to throw relevant references into conversations as needed, but it’s a lot harder to keep in mind that you’re doing this for more than just yourself. And even though we might be unemployed, broke college students, there are plenty of ways we can still do that (I guess this ended up being another one of those “get involved, freshmen!” advice pieces). Go out and vote. Apparently Rutgers is in the top 20 schools with the least politically active students, so let’s fix that — protest, join a campaign, write letters and op-eds or join a student organization about a cause you care about. Just remember that our privilege of being informed about one conflict or another comes at the expense of so many people, and the least we owe to them is to make a conscious effort to take action for their benefit as well.
Sabah Abbasi is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in political science and public health with a minor in Arabic. Her column, “Midweek Crisis,” runs on alternate Wednesdays. She is the former Opinions Editor of The Daily Targum.