Wednesday, August 7, 2013

On Pythons & Media Generated Paranoia

My partner and I have been talking much about the horribly tragic death of two boys in New Brunswick a couple of days ago. KP is snake-o-phobic and this just confirmed her worst fears, especially with a reptile shop around the corner that sells large snakes.

For me, while it horrified me as a father of two young children to think of losing my kids so senselessly, what was also striking was how utterly random and titillating it was meant to be as a news item. I was reminded of one time when I was standing on a subway platform, waiting for the train and reading the newsfeed screen. There was a "breaking story" that kept scrolling again and again across the bottom of the screen: 12 people had died when their boat capsized in Lake Victoria. In case you don't know, Lake Victoria is the world's second largest freshwater lake, next to Lake Superior. It also happens to be in Africa, providing an interior coastline to Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania.

Now what, you might ask, is the purpose of telling me (and a couple of hundred thousand other commuters) about the tragic deaths of 12 people in a boating accident on the other side of the world? Probably the same thing as telling us about the tragic deaths of two young boys in New Brunswick, more or less. I won't be the first to say this but the widespread publicizing of events like this reminded me that these items are publicized for a reason. It's not that the individual stories, in and of themselves, provide us with any sort of useful information. (Well, I suppose it might be useful to wear a lifejacket when on a boat or to ban predatory, wild animals that are large enough to kill children. But I don't think that's why these stories are in the paper.)

I mean, look at the follow-up on the python story. A quick glance at thestar.com and I can see a video on the eating and hunting habits of the African Rock Python. There's an accompanying story that suggest the python might have been attracted to the boys because they had been petting farm animals earlier in the day and they smelled like prey as a result. And, finally, there's a story about how the python has been killed in punishment for the crime of being a large, deadly predator. There will be more in the days to come but that's four stories on one news site in two days. Millions of people are talking about this story, forming opinions on it, arguing about it over coffee and drinks, at the water cooler at work, etc. etc.

It's my opinion that the reason stories like this are considered news in this way is the fundamental acceptance of the political and economic system under which we live. Sure, there are pushes by newspapers to win support for their particular reformist bent - the Star wants less austerity, the National Post wants to cook and eat the poor to save money so the rich can buy bigger yachts. But they both fundamentally accept the dynamics of a system based upon profit and competing nation states. Thus the problems in the world aren't fundamental to the system itself. They are of the nature of accidents, individual acts of cruelty, or stupidity. It becomes difficult to differentiate in importance between a boat capsizing in Lake Victoria and a drone attack in Yemen or a war in the Congo, sponsored by different major powers jockeying for control of important resources.

In other words, the media through its undifferentiated focus on tragedy as a series of disconnected accidents, tells us that the world is incomprehensible and that accidents, personal foibles and, especially, crime and criminals are as much a threat (or more) than political and economic decisions. The latter are seen in isolation from their impact. The poverty in Africa that leads to mechanically faulty boats still sailing Lake Victoria, crammed with people to save money, isn't connected to the competition to keep the price of smartphones low, using key minerals from Africa, etc. etc. The relationship between keeping enormous pythons that kill children and immediate political and economic policy is rather less straightforward (and we should allow for some people to be the kind of idiots who think that such dangerous predators are charming pets). But I do believe that the craving for the exotic - usually defined in relationship to colonialist narratives of the dark continent and places like the Amazon - and for adventure is related, on the one hand to the mundane and monotonous existence that most people have to endure (go to work, repeat tasks endlessly & without purpose, come home to repeat tasks endlessly, go to bed, go to work...on the weekend get drunk to forget about the week, repeat). On the other hand the definition of what is exotic and exciting is shaped by historical and continuing policies in relationship to the developing world.

Nonetheless, the larger point here is that the media obfuscates the truth not just in terms of misrepresenting actual events, through the use of language that shapes meaning (is someone called a "Jamaican immigrant" or a "bank CEO", for instance) but also through the repetition of meta-themes (eg. tragedy is the result of accident, etc), the placement of articles in relationship to each other, etc. This has the impact of making the world more difficult to comprehend and generating a kind of paranoia of everything amongst the population. Death and injury could be lurking anywhere at any moment, when the truth is that most premature deaths and serious injuries in the world are the result of being features of the system and the policy choices that flow from it.

It also means the media shamelessly exploits the unfortunate tragedies suffered by ordinary people in order to sell newspapers. A good story is defined by how much gory detail a particular newspaper can uncover. It is not defined as something that allows us to better understand the world in order to change it and make it less tragedy prone. Given that almost all media is dominated by major corporations, this shouldn't surprise us. It should, however, disgust us.
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