Shared Governance: Pleas and
The Media After 9/11
Patricia Raybon, School of
Journalism and Mass Communication
What Has Changed?
One year later, what has changed in the news media? In
truth, not much, and not enough. Call it superficiality, but a kind of
sublime myopia still pervades news messages, leaving too many Americans
still at a loss to explain and understand the world in which we live.
Consider this recent example: On the Today Show, Gov.
George Pataki of New York, reflecting one year later on the 9/11 tragedy,
intoned to an empathetic Katie Couric: “They attacked us for our freedoms.”
A great quote? Couric seemed to agree. Indeed, the statement may be comforting,
assuring or even inspiring. But it isn’t true. While it may seem crass
these days to criticize Gov. Pataki, or anybody else in New York, his
remarks and Katie Couric’s sympathetic response prompt the question:
Why do even high-ranking American officials persist in trivializing a
real and complex situation; and why do the media participate in this simplification?
The question seems relevant, indeed, considering that one year ago most
Americans, in our shock, were asking: “Who are these people yelling ‘Death
to America’ and why do they hate us?”
On our campus, even students of journalism, whose bread
and butter is the news, struggled to understand the horrible event without
having a wider context. In the J-School, it was disturbing, indeed, to
watch journalists-in-training wring their hands over their ignorance of
Islamic militarism and its implications for America. After all, we live
in an “All News, All the Time” society, as many have called it. How have
the news media been using all that air time? What, indeed, are the myths
-- that is, the stories, or the cultural narratives -- by which the media
inform us every day?
Do these myths, by being retold daily, reinforce our
beliefs, but don’t necessarily deepen our understanding about who we are
and what’s happening in the world? When a governor of one of the largest
and most important states in the nation is asked to explain Sept. 11,
why does he say, “they attacked us for our freedoms”? And why does even
a seasoned journalist accept that as true, even when such logic hardly
begins to explain the Al-Qaeda network and its objectives? To address
such questions, I decided to step back from Sept. 11 and examine media
messages that saturate American thinking everyday.
Some Meta Messages
Sadly, and not surprising, some obvious meta messages
persist: Black people are athletes and criminals. White people are industrious
and good-hearted. Media scholar Robert Entman, author of The Black Image
in the White Mind: Media and Race in America, says of the racial prototypes:
“At least on television, the market discourages serious, complicated reporting
and promotes mayhem and fluff. This means more attention to crime without
context, poverty without explanation, and less attention to the complicated
histories and institutional practices that privilege Whites and burden
The same prototypical approach has burdened others on
the margins of American news: children, gays, immigrants. Even American
teens and young adults, it could be argued, are presented in presumptive
ways through messages that, as Entman puts it, “confirm belief rather
than deepen understanding of community.”
On the global scene, similar mythic messages persist
in the news in ways that discourage better understanding of the world
in which we live. Here are three such messages: America is best. Americans
are heroes. Americans are the best heroes everywhere.
While these messages may inspire Americans, they suggest
attitudes of arrogance and superiority that, indeed, may "read" as arrogance
in other parts of the world. As Simon Li, foreign editor of The Los Angeles
Times argues, “There are more ways of living and thinking than the American
way. And there are different values. They exist and need to be taken into
A Problem with Perspective
Still, other related messages also have become standards
in news media, including this one: American deaths matter more than other
deaths. David T. Z. Mindich, a journalism historian, who has written about
this phenomenon, calls it “the bias of unequal deaths.” I call it the
“arithmetic of news,” whereby one local death in a car crash or one scandalous
homicide merits more air time or newspaper ink than hundreds of deaths
in a tragedy far from “home.” So while it’s understandable that Americans
convulsed over the deaths of Sept. 11 almost 3,000 in a single, horrible
morning we might also consider, as Mindich reminds his students, that
5,000 people a day die of HIV/AIDS in Africa, some 3,000 innocent people
choked to death on poisonous gas in Bohpal in Central India, on Dec. 2,
1984, and another 14,000 people, according to some estimates, have since
died because of that Union Carbide tragedy.
Or consider the United Nations report, “Children on the
Brink,” which details how 20 million children in Africa, and potentially
even more in China, will be orphaned by AIDS by the end of this decade
just eight short years from now. Is it any wonder that observers around
the world look at Americans and think we have a problem with perspective?
Indeed, so pervasive are American media myths that, as Mindich and other
critics have noted, Americans no longer have to listen to or read the
news to feel as if they know what’s going on (and a shrinking news audience
may confirm this trend).
Combating the Trend?
Instead, the stories just run together. So one suicide
bombing looks no different from the next. One crime story looks no different
from the next. One devastating flood or drought or famine or epidemic
looks no different from all the others that have come before, and still
are to come. It’s too easy to succumb, as Entman says, to “the daily diet
of junk journalism and its superficial picture of the world.” In the present-day
world, however, superficialities and misunderstandings can result in tragedy
of horrific proportions. The simplistic paltriness of news information
could injure our nation, and our world, beyond imagination.
How can American journalism combat this trend? First,
with courage courage to change our practices. Next, with faith faith
in our readers’ and viewers’ capacity to digest both the complex and the
unsettling. Some journalists thought that the sheer magnitude of 9/11
would force the kind of media change that Americans so desperately need
to live in and respond to a troubled, complex world. Sadly, however, we
are still hoping and we are still waiting.
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