Recently, while waiting at a bus stop with friends after a concert in downtown Minneapolis, a man approached us and asked if we had heard the news. “What news?” I asked, not sure if he was referring to Trump’s fascist rise to power, the San Bernardino shooting, the Planned Parenthood attack, the killing of Jamar Clark, the protests and shootings that followed, or the Paris terrorist attacks.
As it turns out, he was referring to the Jamar Clark case, stating that he was a cousin of Clark and was trying to spread the word about the injustice of both the shooting and the subsequent treatment of protesters.
After our conversation, what struck me most was that initial response of “What news?” In our heads, my friends and I each ran through a laundry list of recent current events, and they were all horrifying.
It seems as if the world has gone mad right now. In fact, the mood in the country is so low that President Obama was compelled to address the nation from the Oval Office, an event so rare that it was only his third time doing so.
Lately, each time we manage to recover from the latest depressing headline, like clockwork a new horror captures media attention, and the loathsome process begins again. Perhaps the cycle is best depicted in the way our flag seems to constantly plunge back down to half-mast; the symbol of a nation in mourning. Up and down it goes, though now it goes mostly down.
But perhaps a little perspective is in order. I called my grandma recently, asking what she thought of the latest current events. “Oh yes, all these bad events right now…” she said knowingly. I asked her if she thought things were getting worse, if she was more worried now than she was before. “Things have always been like this. The world has always been a little crazy,” my grandma told me. She reminded me that I was calling her on December 7, the day that would live in infamy. “Amy, when Pearl Harbor happened, people thought, ‘Oh my God, is this the end of the world?’” My grandma described how people watched the scene unfold later in movie theater newsreels, stunned by what they had seen.
Things have changed in 73 years. Now tragedies play out on a loop on CNN, and nonstop coverage and commentary of the latest outburst of violence is available at our fingertips. We are steeped in 24/7 coverage of horrific events, and we can’t seem to shut it off.
The last thing I do at night is check my phone, swearing I’ll only read one more pointless article. And guess what I do first thing in the morning when I wake up? A quick scroll through the headlines, checking to see if the world is on fire yet. My grandma mentioned she had a similar routine.
She wakes up in the morning and thinks, “Well, I wonder what happened while we were sleeping… What’s the latest breaking news?” Because she knows there’s always breaking news.
My grandma thinks the obsession with digging up the latest tragedy and blasting it on every available form of media is too much. “We don’t need to see all that stuff. We know too much.” It wasn’t always this way, however.
Reflecting on how media coverage of tragedies has evolved to the nonstop parade of violence that calls itself news, Gramma quipped, “Anderson Cooper wasn’t at every bad event ever!” No, he wasn’t. But now that he is, ratings are high.
This drive for ratings explains the pinnacle scene of insanity in the media that unfolded two days after the San Bernardino shooting. Various cable news networks broadcasted live from inside the rental home of the two shooters, rifling through their belongings on air. This was clearly not an act of journalism so much as an act of voyeurism, and it was disturbing to watch. But this is what we asked for, isn’t it?
We demand around the clock coverage, and the media does its best to keep up. Perhaps it’s a mutually destructive relationship that we have developed with the media. “You become addicted – you have to have that noise all the time,” Gramma reflected, adding sardonically, “Anderson Cooper is my best friend!”
The human brain did not evolve to withstand the onslaught of violence and threats that are broadcast right into our living rooms. Studies have demonstrated that we significantly overestimate the danger posed to us by dreadful but improbable events.
So when the brain is exposed to information about a violent shooting, coupled with nonstop coverage of the event, creeping anxiety takes hold, and we no longer feel safe. So even though we are more likely to be struck by lightning than killed in a terrorist attack or a mass shooting, we can’t help but think: “What if it happens to me?”
As we return home for the holidays, so happy to see all the people we love, I think we can comfortably turn off our TVs and tuck away our phones. Because odds are, whatever nightmare is happening miles and miles away does not need our undivided attention right now. Your world, and the people who really matter, are already right in front of you. Gramma was always far more interesting than Anderson Cooper, anyway.