I sometimes call the Internet “the scolding machine”; I try to avoid scolding on my various social media platforms. But there’s a recent round of finger-wagging that is making me want to…well…scold my friends. It’s about the idea that “the media” is shining a spotlight on Paris while ignoring violence outside of the rich, predominately white, nations. I see more and more of journalists pushing back against that notion, and I’d like to add my voice to theirs. Because this criticism is dead wrong. Empirically, factually incorrect. And not harmlessly wrong. It’s wrong in ways that make our lives a little bit worse.
Before I get into it, it must be said that racial, cultural, and economic biases exist — within me, you, institutions, across nations, and within nations around the globe. We’re quick to get personal in these discussions, so I’ll preemptively bet my next year’s salary that I’ve done more than most to try to bring those biases to light. In fact, bias is part of the point I’m going to try to make here — read on. Also, I’ll readily concede that Americans, as a group, are frighteningly ignorant and self-centered, not uniquely so, but relative to the power we wield in the world. With great power comes great responsibility, says Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben. I wish more of us understood that our nuclear weapons and aircraft carriers set a very high bar indeed. We have the First Amendment, but we do not have the luxury of shooting our mouths off.
Some facts. Paris is the most-visited city in the world. I’ve been there. Chances are pretty good you’ve been there, too. I read this morning that the terrorists killed people from 15 nations, of every skin color and religious persuasion. The terrorists were counting on that. That’s why they picked the City of Lights, and not, say, boring old bundled-up Oslo. They wanted to touch as many people as possible with fear. They want the heads of those 15 nations to focus their attention on ISIS, or “Daesh,” as people are taking to calling this band of idiots and thugs. This they are doing through attention from “the media.” And when I say “the media,” I include social media — that’s you. Hence the quotes. If you’re thinking of “the media” is an alien thing out there in the world, don’t. By having a Facebook or Medium account, you’re part of the media now. That means you have responsibilities.
So when we lament the attention the world is focusing on Paris, we are missing the point. When we chastise friends for French-flagging their profile pictures, we are being clueless busybodies. I’m scolding; I’m sorry. Maybe I’m the busybody here. But really, when something so awful happens, so psychically close to home, and people respond with solidarity and caring, that is not the time to chastise. That’s humanity at its best. And yes, definitely, our solidarity and caring needs to extend to people outside of Paris. Does anyone disagree with that? Sure, lots of people, but most of them are not our friends on social media. Lots of American politicians are saying they’ll refuse Syrian refugees. That’s where we need to aim our anger. Those people need to be voted out of office.
Part of what’s annoying about the chastisements is that it turns otherwise very decent people into what journalist Jamiles Lartey calls “tragedy hipsters,” as in, “Bro- I care about suffering and death that you’ve never even heard of.” The status update becomes a status symbol, like a Prius. That sense of self-righteousness without self-awareness is itself a tragedy. Because it creates a sense of power — in this case, power over your friends, the people around you — but that “power” is an escapist fantasy. You feel that you’re doing something about something that happened half the world away. You’re calling people out! You’re a hero! Like Spider-Man. But with social media instead of spider webs. That’s tragic, in the classic sense. You’re a good person, brought down by a flaw. That flaw is a self-image inflated by social media.
Let’s talk about heroes. That is to say, people who make sacrifices on behalf of others. You know who is a hero? A journalist in a war zone. Sure, for the Western ones, ambition might have driven them there. Outsider or insider, the journalist is a flawed, biased human being. Worse, the journalist probably works for The Man, the corporate media, or (in some places) the state media, if they want to make any kind of living at all. But there are thousands of journalists reporting from some very, very dangerous places. The people are imperfect, so are the organizations, and so is the reporting. And every week, one of these imperfect people is killed, sometimes in the most horrible ways you can imagine. Dozens and dozens have been killed in Syria, most of them Muslims, since the start of the war. Sometimes journalists are simply beaten or even sexually attacked, as CBS News correspondent Lara Logan was while reporting on the Egyptian revolution.
More facts. No, wait — you can generate your own facts. Go to Google News right now. Type in “Beirut attack,” setting the time period as ending just before Paris. There you should find over a thousand hits from CNN, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal, as well as many, many international outlets. Those reporters, drawn from all over the world, often risked their lives to create those reports. Another salient point: “the media” is not some kind of octopus with unlimited reach. Especially today, after all the downsizing, media organizations, for-profit and non-profit alike, are working on a budget. Forget Anderson Cooper and the well-paid morons on Fox; most reporters, especially those from the developing world, work for very little money. Let’s honor that, and their work.
Do you know whose heart breaks first and most when no one reads or watches stories about these incredibly pressing human issues? Those reporters, and her or his editors. Every editor knows the experience of publishing something on some vitally important issue, only to hear crickets. Do you know who is least affected? You, probably. Your heart can’t break over what you don’t know. Do you know who is not a hero? You. I’m not criticizing; I’m telling the truth. I’m no hero either. I’m just some guy bitching and complaining on my MacBook Pro from sunny Berkeley, California.
Enough complaining. What can we do?
My first recommendation is to be skeptical. Not just of everything you read online; be skeptical of yourself. When you feel that dopamine rush of righteousness coming on, STOP. Hit pause. Take a breath. If someone is saying that “the media” isn’t reporting on an issue, do your own research. Google News is available to all. You might also want to check out what local media are saying. Remember the news from Nigeria earlier this year? The international press was saying 2,000 people had been killed in and around Baga, and friends on FB were claiming this wasn’t reported. In fact, most of that news was coming from the Western press, mainly the BBC; the Nigerian press hardly reported that news, and in fact, locally, the number of dead was very hotly disputed, with many saying it was just a skirmish in a long war.
I’m just saying: Check your facts, especially when the facts and explanations seem to confirm your pre-existing beliefs. Sometimes you’ll mess up. I do, all the time. Big deal. Admit you’re wrong, forgive yourself, and try to do better next time. The difference between a well-rounded human and a one-dimensional fanatic is that the human remembers that he or she can be wrong.
A corollary: Look for context and alternative explanations, especially when the existing one confirms what you think you already know. Know how many people died in terrorist attacks in France last year? One. When over a hundred people are killed in a night in such a relatively peaceful and international place, that’s news, period. You are not helping the victims of the Syrian war by shaming your friends for turning their profile pic into an Eiffel tower peace sign. You are part of the media, so use that. If you know something others seem to be missing, find on-the-ground reports and take responsibility for informing your community, issuing disclaimers as you go.
The other thing I suggest is that instead of posting all those articles from DailyKos or whatever saying that “the media” isn’t reporting on an issue (often while linking to reports on CNN or the BBC, from which the writer learned of the event), post the actual source-reports instead of wrong-headed critiques of the sources. Better yet, find local English-language media and share their content, perhaps balanced against international press. Sometimes, the local press is very tightly controlled by the state or simply by fear of reprisal; we must take everything — everything — we read with a grain of salt.
Crucially, we need to consciously cultivate wide social networks, including people with whom you often disagree, while at the same time cultivating the awareness that your networks create bias. I don’t unfriend people for disagreeing with me; I have unfriended a few people for getting viciously personal. I often see posts, not unlike the one I’m writing right now, scolding people for not doing this or that. Which is fine, but so, so, so often I see good people generalize from the data they see in their incredibly biased FB feed. I learned about the shootings in Kenya, the earthquake in Nepal, the Syrian refugee crisis, and more, from Facebook. In the same feed, I also see people write, “Why is no one paying attention to the shootings in Kenya/earthquake in Nepal/the Syrian refugee crisis?!” Seemingly unaware that this isn’t true of everyone or of everyone’s social network. It’s a hard truth: Imbalance in your social media feeds doesn’t reflect media bias. It reflects your bias.
To correct for this, I often work to add friends (even ones I don’t know) who I think will add to the depth and richness of how I see the world. I also try to be aware that my efforts will always fall short. You can’t eliminate bias; you can only mitigate and manage it.
Finally: Let’s try to be supportive of each other online. Kind, compassionate, honest. There’s a place for anger or snark. But that shouldn’t be our default setting, especially when we communicate with people whom we call friends.