Questions and topics for discussion

Do We Care?

Based on the article Do We Care by Libby Brooks, published in The Guardian (liberal), London, England, Feb. 4, 2003, and reprinted in the April 2003 issue of World Press Review (Vol. 50, No. 4)

1. What factors contribute to the amount of media attention that an event receives? Are some tragedies really "more important" than others? Consider these examples from Brooks' article: seven high-school children killed in an avalanche in British Columbia (Feb. 2003); seven astronauts killed in the disintegration of the space shuttle Columbia (Feb. 2003); seven Africans drowned and washed up on a southern Spanish beach (Jan. 2003); seven Palestinians shot dead daily by Israeli forces over a three-day incursion (Jan. 2003).

2. Do you think the media influences how we prioritize events that happen elsewhere, both privately and publicly (for example via foreign policy, aid, protest, intervention, etc.)? What else influences how we set these priorities?

3. Do you agree with Dominic Lawson’s comment that: “News value is equivalent to surprise. It’s not a comparative exercise in the value of human life”? Do you think news editors should use “surprise” or “rarity” as criteria to ascribe value? What other criteria must a news editor consider when deciding how much coverage one event should receive? How much do (and should) potential sales matter in this equation?

4. Why might events that make top headlines in one country not appear at all in another country's press? List examples of events in the United States that you think foreign news media would have ignored. List examples of events in other countries that did not receive much (or any) attention in the U.S. media. How did you find out about the latter?

5. Brooks writes: “[Roy] Greenslade [media commentator for The Guardian] believes that the British press has been expressing an unconscious acceptance of the United States as supreme global power. ‘We are over-sensitive to what happens over there and we treat their tragedies with kid gloves. Our hurt is their hurt. I’ll be looking with great interest to see whether the first seven Iraqis killed in the forthcoming conflict get anything like the pages of sympathy devoted to these astronauts.’” Do you agree or disagree with Greenslade that international media give special, and perhaps excessive, weight to what happens in the United States because of its status as “supreme global power”?

6. Do you think “compassion fatigue,” the idea that we withdraw our compassion from a situation which we feel unable to control or change, is a legitimate concept? Or do you fall on the side of professor Jacqueline Rose, who doesn’t like the term because “we have a surplus of empathy in some places and not in others. There are selections occurring, to do with hugely vested interests. We have to ask who is selecting where we feel empathy”?

7. Is it acceptable for news media and their audiences to seek catharsis in “manageable, discrete tragedy” that offers emotional closure and to avoid what is “most pressing or ethically important” because it is either difficult to deal with emotionally or, having lost its element of surprise and rarity, difficult to cover?

Quotations for general discussion

Distribute quotations and ask students for their reactions:

“I do think the coverage [of the Columbia tragedy] over the weekend was excessive. It is significant that people who die undertaking a very risky enterprise gain more coverage than those who die day after day living their ordinary lives in Israel. There is a hierarchy of death and if you fit into a certain role then you are going to get more exposure.” (Roy Greenslade, media commentator for The Guardian)

“A nation grieves [over the loss of the space shuttle] because it is trying to put out of its mind the fact that it is about to be involved in the killing of up to 80,000 civilians in Iraq. This is an occasion that allows people to contemplate this in a displaced way....It’s an indirect acknowledgment of an ongoing vulnerability, which clashes with their leader’s fantasy of omnipotence. They are suffering a classic split-they are told that they are being good citizens, liberating the people of Iraq, but they are also aware that they are about to do the most terrible violence.” (Jacqueline Rose, Professor)

“Life is hard and people are weak. It’s not through any terrible self-centeredness or malice. It is a relatively recent phenomenon for us to be aware of what’s going on all over the world. We’re not wired up to cope with the suffering of huge numbers of anonymous people....there is no evolutionary reason why we should be instinctively concerned with a famine in a faraway place. So it’s a triumph of reason that most of us feel that if it’s terrible someone should be starving to death on our own doorstep, then it is equally terrible if they are starving a million miles away.” (Julian Baggini, editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine and author of Making Sense: Philosophy Behind the Headlines)