Politics & Media
Nov 18, 2008, 05:07AM

The End of Empathy

How the media’s oversaturation of violence makes us care less and less about what’s happening globally.

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Here in my relatively safe haven in “The West” I’m ashamed to say I’ve become numb to the daily news reports of suicide bombings occurring throughout the Middle East and Asia. Every day there seems to be one or two more—useless, senseless acts of vengeful kamikaze violence that crush families, decimate cities and villages, and disturb the fitful, fragile moments of peace in nations whose wounds never have the time to heal. Here in my reinforced left-leaning concrete bunker with my green Vespa and yoga classes, the echoes of their tragic explosions don’t scare or upset me, they just leave a bad taste in my mouth. Like desperate, shouting car commercials, bad bagels, Jackie-O sunglasses and the Billboards on Santa Monica BLVD of Paris Hilton’s perfume line (now with a male version), I’m sick and tired to death of them.

And that scares me.

What has happened to me? Has the media culture cried wolf so long and so loud that we only think it’s the wind and not murder outside our door? Remember those colored “Terror alerts” that seemed to mean something after September 11? They stream across the cable tickers now and we don’t care what color they or if they’ve been elevated or not. Orange? Red? Purple? Who cares? We have bigger fish to fry. Rent to pay. Resumes to fax. Lost to watch. We are a restless bunch with pop-song brains. If you tell someone to be afraid and be on guard every five minutes for seven years when nothing really happens, eventually we get sick of listening.

Sometimes I am disgusted at how safe I feel. Even in Los Angeles, where certain parts of town feature gang battles so fierce that they train military nurses in the field like it’s a simulated Iraq war zone, I never think about losing my life at any moment. The constant safety and comfort make me feel weak. I don’t have to serve in the military, the water is always hot when I shower and the lights almost always stay on. What will I tell my children when I’m a crotchety old fuck in 2050—when I was your age I had to drive to school in a beat up used Saab, isn’t that terrible? When my father’s father was my age he was being shot at on an aircraft carrier in The Philippines. When my mother’s father was a boy he contracted polio and was in iron lung for months and told he would never walk. I walk home many nights at two a.m., alone, healthy, bored, from wherever I can find to park my car and the streets are silent and still—sleepy policemen sitting sentry every 200 feet. If you sneeze wrong they ask if you’re all right or give you a parking ticket. Back in Chicago I’ve been held up for my bicycle, but the fact is I’ve never lost a single family member in any explosion or war and the thought that I would ever strap a bomb to my chest to make a heroic sacrifice for my country/god/cause would make my parents chuckle. They know I couldn’t even play goalie in soccer as a kid because I was afraid the ball would hit me in the face.

As for suicide bombings and the smorgasbord of tragedy that occurs every day in the East, I can’t help thinking, deep down, I just don’t want to hear about it anymore. What about me? It just reminds me that I should be upset. It reminds me that I should be doing something to help, to help make things better, to help people who need the help—but instead I go to work, make enough to pay rent and see some movies, sit at the desk all day and secretly wonder if Albert Pujols or Ryan Howard will win the NL MVP. Is that wrong? Or is that just what we do here?

I often think of writing to NPR, my morning companion, and asking them if they can report on anything else besides death—the progress of human cloning, the evolution of a fully functioning man from bacteria, the poetry of the Yukon, the film industry in The Ivory Coast, anything besides a few explosions in the same countries every damn day. Can’t they see it’s monotonous? Guilt inducing? Christ, anything happening in Chile or Iceland or Laos today? No new art in Guam? No new sports hero in Mongolia? No new ice-flow on Neptune? Anything pleasant happening in Buenos Aires or Bratislava? I sometimes wonder if three quarters of the world is forgotten about during our average 24-hour news cycle. I want stories—tales of courage and love.

Can a place be worth reporting on if something terrible isn’t happening there? What were we hearing about Sudan or Somalia before their humanitarian crises? What do we hear about them when things are “cleared up” for a bit? Did half the United States even know where the republic of Georgia was before the fracas with Russia broke out? Does anyone talk about the droughts in Malawi or the sewage systems in Calcutta? Do people have to riot to be heard?

After years of the same news, I turn on 89.9 KCRW in Santa Monica like clockwork every morning and feel myself rolling my eyes as I hear about yet another attack in Kabul or Gaza or Basra. Four killed, 10 killed, 20 killed. Pakistan, Israel, Iraq. Though scores of real, breathing people are killed and maimed each time an these human bombs are set off—though the bustling café’s in Beirut, the teeming markets in Islamabad, the busy evening busses in Lahore or the nightclubs of Jerusalem which I’ve visited are reduced to a hell of shredded limbs and smoking shrapnel, it somehow means nothing to me. How can it mean nothing? I wonder what I will be having for lunch. Quesadillas or Pad Thai? I wonder if I should see Batman or go swimming later. As the radio plays, I wait impatiently for the “diversions” section of “Morning Edition” to come on—the playful, funny stuff I can send to my coworkers to get a giggle out of them: a Japanese baseball team drafts a five foot tall teenage girl with a wicked curve ball, a chimp outperforms school children in long division.

Is that wrong?

  • It's not wrong for you to be de-sensitized to the violence and tragedy all over the world. You have your own problems, I'd imagine, to deal with. But I wouldn't blame the media for over-saturation. One, it's their job. Two, while it's impossible to digest and understand worldwide suffering, I'm grateful to learn about it.

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  • It is the media's job to report news. Unfortunately for us, the media in the past 20 years has become a huge industry. They discovered the fact taht reporting 5 year old white girls going missing in Alabama gets people to tune in. Whereas the discovery of two new planets that can be directly visualized is not good for ratings. No, the media is overtly negative simply because it is easier and sells commercials/ newspapers. Great article!

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  • Hello and great piece, However, as a journalist, I'll throw in my two cents Reporters to get to the truth can’t always do what the public wants. The pursuit of truth doesn’t let you choose whether it’s good or bad news. It’s just the truth. That contributes to what the public sees in the media. It’s unfortunate, but reporters have thick skin. I don't know how else to explain it other than the fact that, we are human beings, we are parents and sons and daughters, and we don't get some sort of stimulus from reporting death tolls. We simply report. Someone losing their life a thousand miles away is more relevant than some fluff feature piece appearing on page three. It's a dark world, but we all live in it.

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  • 2 points 1. The media covers these crimes with very sanitized visual aids. It is easier to dismiss words than visual images. If people saw the body bags, blood, and disfigurements from the "war" on a daily basis perhaps the people would realize the consequences a little better. Same is true for any crime/disease/disaster. 2. The reality is that a lot of nasty shit happens in the world. Knowing about it makes you safer. Ignorance may be bliss but it is also dangerous.

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