Why tragedy is good for the media

By Becky Wandel

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(Yorick Jansens/Belga/Zuma Press/TNS)

(Yorick Jansens/Belga/Zuma Press/TNS)

Tragedy is good news for CNN, as it is for FOX, MSNBC, Buzzfeed and any other journalistic medium which relies on ad money. It’s simple. School kids being bombed in Peshawar, bombs going off in Brussels, Americans being beheaded on video—it all equals one thing to these networks: money.

Such events naturally draw more viewers to their networks and temporarily increase their audience. They give them this great power to shape conversations and either milk each tragedy for all it’s worth or give it its due time and move on.

From the standpoint of a corporation (and that’s what these news agencies are), the choice is easy – talk about each awful thing for as long as possible, get more views, get more money. They are businesses after all, and businesses can’t be faulted for wanting to make money. But herein lies the key difference: news agencies aren’t just businesses, they’re public servants. We trust them to be human and moral and discretionary like the rest of us. In fact, we trust them so much that we give them an incredible power over us. They have power to manipulate our feelings and our opinions – power to manipulate our votes.

So we must have faith that the corporations with which we trust this power are going to be responsible– that they’re not going to exploit our feelings and manipulate our attention for a profit. More and more though, they are forced to ignore us, mainly because we’re not giving them any money.

As much as these news agencies deserve to be admonished as the antagonists they’ve become for ignoring such moral obligations, we can’t entirely blame them. We ask them to respect us but we don’t put our money where our mouth is.

So when a bomb goes off somewhere around the world, or a man brings a gun into a school, or a guy executes people at a mall, the whole world gets an alert to tune in, and CNN stays on TV for another year.

I’m really sick of that. I’m sick of the only news on TV being designed to make people afraid so they keep watching. I’m sick of hearing people say they’re not going to travel until things have “settled down” because their fear has been exploited to the point where they think the whole world is out to get them. I’m sick of the bombs going off in Pakistan and Turkey and Iraq not being loud enough for CNN to hear because they won’t draw the same amount of views as bombs in Boston and Paris and Brussels.

The choice to change that is in our hands. If we keep supporting cable news and clicking on the first thing that pops up when we google the #prayfor___ hashtag that just started trending on Twitter, we have to know that we’re feeding a monster. And it’s a monster that doesn’t care about us.

Alternatively, we could look past the white-hot headlines, and scroll down by the first few links about a certain story to find publically funded journalism – stories that you know don’t have to rely heavily on lies or sensationalism to get views. PBS, first-hand tweets or YouTube journalists who are supported by crowdfunding are good places to start. I hope there will be more places like these in the future.

I’ll say that as humans, our attention is one of the most precious things we have to give. It’s our time and it’s our life and every day we hand it over to someone else for some number of minutes or hours to hear about our world. With whom will you trust that gift?

My advice? Make sure it’s someone who respects it. Make sure it’s someone who doesn’t just want to eat it alive.

Becky Wandel is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]