Considering the Hierarchy of Suffering

No one in a newsroom is a stranger to the hierarchy of suffering. If arguments around the news desk aren’t enough to drive home that reality, our readers, viewers or listeners do.

Dec 2, 2015 at 4:30 pm

No one in a newsroom is a stranger to the hierarchy of suffering.If arguments around the news desk aren’t enough to drive home that reality, our readers, viewers or listeners do. Whatever jaded journalists feel, victimhood has become a source of cohesion, power and pride; my Holocaust is worse than yours. The heart of the newsroom debate is whether one person's or group’s suffering is devalued by stories emphasizing another’s.At its worst, personal or institutional newsroom bias values some lives more than others. At its best, news judgment involves information arising from the day’s events, professional experience and limits imposed by finite resources. There never was a time when we could publish or broadcast “all the news that’s fit to print.” Hell, we couldn’t even gather it. Rather than empathy fatigue, news judgment often reflects what I like to call “selective agony.” We cover some people some of the time but not others: hundreds of black and Hispanic victims of lethal police violence but not suicides by thousands of white men. We heard it again after suicide bombers murdered more than 40 in Beirut and killers massacred at least 130 in Paris. However, Beirut’s horror almost vanished from international news media a day later in the overwhelming coverage of Parisian deaths and search for the killers’ accomplices. It was as if lives in “The Paris of the Middle East” mattered less than those lost in “The City of Lights.” Even the similarities between Beirut and Paris atrocities were lost: ISIS is blamed, Syria is implicated and Islamist killers chose soft targets at the heart of each city. It comes down to daily newsroom decisions on “what’s the bigger story” and “why it’s the bigger story.”Part of it is image. Beirut is perceived as a war zone while Paris enjoys its joie de vivre.Still, there is more to it than that. Our choices of subjects, information and how they are presented are affected by what The Virtuous Journalist, an out-of-print textbook, calls structural, situational, cultural and visual factors.These factors come into play whether it’s a police shooting in Cincinnati, Boko Haram massacres in Nigeria, Islamist killers invading a Radisson hotel in Mali or Russians bombing in Syria. Here’s how I saw news judgments developing over the past fortnight: • Structural factors are specific to the medium. Radio needs sound: gunshots, bomb blasts, sirens and interviews. TV needs images. Cell phone images and sounds complemented professional videos. Websites need speed, sound and visuals even if some blocked gruesome details. • Situational factors are inherent in the nature or the circumstances of a story. Proximity and access are key elements in any decision. News media have correspondents in Paris or within easy reach of the French capital. Similarly, Tristate residents have family in Paris and Lebanon but violence in Beirut is “old” news. • Visual factors include layout, photos/video images and graphics. Big always suggests important. The first page of any newspaper section or website or the top story on any radio or TV news program proclaims importance. Online links to video carry the same message. In Paris, Beirut and Mali, the only issue is how graphic the chosen images will be. •  Cultural factors include audience characteristics, nationalism, ethnocentrism, race/ethnicity, sex/gender, class, education, parochialism, political correctness and religion.Audiences. News media know more about their consumers than ever. News judgment includes what the audiences want to know — whether Walnut Hills' band goes to Paris — and what the audiences need to know — Republican candidates’ call to admit only Christian Syrian refugees. Nationalism. Early stories from Paris identified an American student victim. Initial reports after the Radisson hotel massacre in Mali named an American victim.  Similar national identifications follow every airliner crash. Ethnocentrism/ethnicity. Immigrants from former French colonies and their French-born children, these ethnic Arabs are portrayed as hopelessly alien by conservative politicians. It’s a big deal when a North African Arab is named to a French cabinet post; ethnicity is always central to the newsworthiness.Race. Separate from ethnicity, this is more an American than a French problem. Here, it’s fatal shootings by police, discrimination in hiring and classroom discipline, money lenders charging non-whites more for mortgages and even using the term “non-white.” Race plays in attempts to shame a reporter or editor who is skeptical of minority student claims of violence, harassment or insecurity. Most recently, race was unavoidable in the white professor’s call for black student violence against a student journalist covering black student protests at the University of Missouri. Sex/gender. Look at the number of stories and images of the young woman killed in the police raid on the terrorists’ Parisian apartment. She was a wild child whose Muslim discipline was lacking in a young woman. She wasn’t a shooter or bomber that night. At home, most American journalists aren’t even sure which terms to use when a story involves sex/gender or whether it’s safe to be skeptical of claims of rape, other sexual assault or sexual harassment. Class. It’s often unconsciously involved in our stories. Reporters focused on Parisians and visitors who could afford cafes before and after the massacre. Muslims warehoused in Paris suburbs are dismissed as a permanent and menacing underclass. At home, American reporters go to college campuses to poll young adults but rarely seek opinions of their working class or unemployed peers. Class is implicated in repeated mentions that an unmarried local police shooting victim had 11 children or a defiant Kentucky county clerk was married four times. We treat them in ways that unmarried or much-married celebrities and their children are not. Assault on a Hyde Park jogger will get more news media attention than the attack on an Over-the-Rhine resident. Education. We tend to respect people with college degrees more than trade school/building trades training… until we need a plumber or electrician. News judgment reflects the lie that everyone needs a college degree because news media tend to hire only college grads. Editors’ willful blindness to post-secondary training in manufacturing and skilled trades contributes to the shortage of these workers. Parochialism. Local deaths — whether criminal, industrial or traffic — count more than similar, distant deaths. Victims of historic or regional misery abroad are less newsworthy than people struck by calamity or violence nearby. One missing young woman here is far more newsworthy than hundreds of missing and murdered young Mexican women in border communities. Je suis Charlie was catchy. Je suis Paris is boring. Political correctness. Massacres in France, Lebanon and Mali created stories that didn’t worry newsrooms about political correctness. Villains were clear and proud of their motivations. Victims were innocent. Coincidentally, there was angst over how to report the claims of black students at Missouri and the consequences of their claims. Increasingly, news judgment reflects a fear of anything but credulity when writing about racial and sexual assault/harassment. And finally, religion, in whose names most contemporary killings occur. Radical Islamists murder in France, Syria and Iraq, Lebanon and Mali, Nigeria and Central African Republic. Christians or other Muslims respond. The only risk journalists run is equating barbarity with Islam itself. We faced that problem when writing about massacres in the Balkans as Yugoslavia broke into warring pieces. There was a reluctance to identify barbarity with Bosniak Muslims, Orthodox Christians and Catholics even when crimes against humanity were defined by communal hostilities. And no one has to be told that religion is never far from stories from the Middle East where  differences among Muslims, differences among Jews and differences among Jews, Muslims, Druze and Christians can generate deadly outcomes.

Curmudgeon notes:

• The Obama administration and federal agencies aren’t the only ones preferring opacity to transparency in dealing with the news media. In Canada, the recently ousted Conservative Party government was infamous for its gagging of its federal scientists. Prime Minister Stephen Harper used every power of office to minimize the likelihood of science contradicting his policies.Harper’s gone and good riddance. The Canadian Broadcasting Corp. says his successor, Liberal Party prime minister Justin Trudeau, lifted the ban on federal scientists talking to reporters. CBC said Harper “required national or international media requests to speak with federal government scientists to be approved by a minister's office, and all communications with government scientists to go through a government communications office.”That changed two days after Trudeau and his cabinet were sworn in. CBC said Navdeep Bains, the new minister of innovation, science and economic development, announced the policy change. "Our government values science and will treat scientists with respect,” Bains told CBC.   “That is why government scientists and experts will be able to speak freely about their work to the media and the public. We are working to make government science fully available to the public and will ensure that scientific analyses are considered in decision making.”A personal note. This is a big deal. Canadians do fine science, not least on fisheries and weather. These matter to us as much as to them. When I covered environment affairs for The Cincinnati Enquirer and spent days interviewing scientists and government officials in Canada about acid rain, I found easy access and candor. That was before Harper.• Black students at the University of Missouri are protesting what they say is pervasive racism. Beyond their immediate community, no one cared much until Missouri’s black football players struck.That drew national news media, not least because Missouri is a football school and the strike — not the larger black student protest — could cost the university a lot of money. Let me say that again. The larger black student protest was a local story until the black football players joined.Then the protest took a weird turn. Melissa Click, a white assistant professor in the Communications Department, tried to block a student videographer from covering a confrontation between another student journalist and black student protesters. “Who wants to help me get this reporter out of here?” Click can be heard asking in a video of her confrontation with student journalist Mark Schierbecker. “I need some muscle over here.”“This is public property,” Schierbecker is heard saying.Covering Schierbecker’s video-camera lens with her hand, Click says, in a derisive tone: “Yeah, I know, that’s a really good one; I’m a communication faculty, and I really get that argument. But you need to go. You need to go. You need to go.” Click’s call for black student “muscle” was a call to use violence against a journalist. And she did it on camera. I was pleased to see that she was not a member of the journalism faculty. Her appointment is to another department, Communications. To its credit, the journalism faculty canceled her role as a guest thesis reviewer for its graduate students. Now the university should show her the door.• No one believes federal statistics on shooting deaths at the hands of police. Not even the feds who collect and disseminate them. London’s Guardian and the Washington Post have far more complete tolls, the product of a lot more work than the FBI or anyone else at the Justice Department ever considered doing. Now, the Guardian also has begun counting Taser deaths among people zapped by police. • It was a small triumph for New York Times reporters, buried in a recent edition. Greensboro, N.C., police are cutting back on stopping drivers for minor equipment infractions. The Times said its reporters “documented wide racial disparities in traffic law enforcement … that were mirrored across North Carolina and appeared in some traffic stop data collected by half a dozen other states.” Greensboro Police Chief Wayne Scott responded with an order to stop pulling motorists over for minor infractions involving vehicle flaws like broken taillights, the Times said.Policy change also limits when officers could search a stopped driver or car. Another change will be less reliance on “resisting arrest” charges when a driver wasn’t charged with anything that justified an arrest. • In the first hours after the Paris massacre, NPR did its typical, thorough and sober job. Radio allows an immediacy and feel that TV cannot match. Think of sound in black and white rather the color. You have to listen to radio. TV has too many distractions in even the best videography. Online, the French government’s was indispensible after the attacks. As with NPR, the information was presented without sensationalism and few if any images of bodies that non-French news media favor. • A content warning in the Nov. 22 Sunday Enquirer confirms how the paper still considers itself a guest in readers’ homes and at their breakfast tables.In the print edition, James Pilcher’s investigation of a firing in Kentucky warns: “This story contains potentially offensive language.” Online, the warning is more dramatic and in bold face type: “READER ADVISORY: This story and video contains potentially offensive language.” Set aside, for the moment, the bold face grammatical error some editor introduced. It should have said “contain” after “story and video.” The potentially offensive language was “tits.” I didn’t bother to listen to the video. That’s a medium where no barriers appear to exist. It may seem quaint when sexual and scatalogical expressions and images are almost as common as violence, but at least the Grey Lady (formerly of Vine Street) still cares. • I wish Enquirer reporters had pressed Steve Chabot on his desire to bring in thousands of aliens as temporary workers to fill jobs that Americans won’t do.It wasn’t clear from the lengthy story Sunday on how these workers will be vetted to make sure they’re not terrorists and how to make sure these 21st century braceros go home when their temporary jobs end. If Chabot’s fellow Republicans don’t trust our elaborate program to screen refugees seeking entrance to this country, what will they create to screen wannabe landscaper laborers and motel maids? There’s the story. • A number of news media recalled the tragedy of the St. Louis and other failed efforts by Jews hoping to escape Nazi ascendancy in Europe before World War II. With rare exception, Americans turned them away, including hundreds aboard the transatlantic liner St. Louis. Then, as now, religious discrimination was at the heart of the rejections: Jew-hatred then, Muslim-hatred now. • Ironically, Americans welcomed thousands of former Nazis and other Germans and their allies and collaborators after World War II while making it difficult for their surviving victims to enter the United States as refugees/displaced persons. • Predictably, a malicious online post falsely identified someone as one of the terrorists in Paris. In this case, it was a Canadian Sikh, Veerender Jubbal. He’d posted a selfie holding a Koran. Someone altered it by adding a suicide vest and a caption saying he was one of the gunmen. Jubbal is a tech journalist and he fears the smear was retaliation for some online comments he’s made unrelated to Paris or Islam. He tweeted, “Let us start with the basics. Never been to Paris. Am a Sikh dude with a turban. Lives in Canada.”London’s Independent said at least two Spanish news outlets published the altered photo and false caption. Relatives said it appeared in at least one major Indian daily. He tweeted, “This whole thing puts me in a bad position in the sense where I could be harmed and/or hurt due to this.”

CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: [email protected]