A Bad Week for Journalism

News media has taken several more hits this week, and they’re fairly serious ones. We’ve seen discussions of FOX News’ decision to post the ISIS tape of 26-year-old Jordanian pilot Lt. Muath Al-Kaseasbeh being burned alive, and NBC’s Brian Williams’ problems with some mis-rememberings / fabrications of his participation in events past.

I used the first story to broach ethics with my students, and considerations of communication studies and mass comm issues: Are those who share the link to the gruesome murder being complicit in the criminal activities of the Islamic State, or does that link in fact educate the people in our country about how incredibly cruel those fighters are and perhaps spur people to push their Congressional representatives to try to end the reign of terror that ISIS is forcing on the people of the Middle East? I’m teaching two classes of mostly freshmen right now, so they’re not talking a lot, but I think they’re taking in what I’m pointing out. I was also able to use the idea of educating citizens, who then put pressure on their legislators, to show them that this was a current, real-time example of agenda setting in action (conceptual model from McQuail & Windahl (1993) found at http://www.utwente.nl/cw/theorieenoverzicht/Theory%20clusters/Mass%20Media/Agenda-Setting_Theory/). Agenda setting is a concept they struggle with, but by linking it to a current event, I think it makes the theory more understandable.

I also asked them whether they thought that being repeatedly shown images or videos of such cruelty desensitized us as a nation. After all, just a few short months ago, we were reeling from the idea of ISIS militiamen beheading their victims. We were gasping and saying, “Oh my God, they’re chopping people’s heads off,” whereas now, though we still find the act reprehensible, we’re saying, “They cut some more people’s heads off.” That initial shock is already leaving us; now we know what those people are capable of and we’re slightly better “prepared,” if that’s possible, to hear it again; we’re expecting it. By showing these videos, do news sources help further that desensitization? Or is just the act of hearing about it and creating the images and horror in our own minds media enough? And by advertising the cruelty – does this encourage ISIS to move to the next step of videotaping prolonged torture before putting the victims out of their misery?

The second story, about Brian Williams, I’ll have to admit troubles me on a personal level. I’ve always had a certain amount of respect for what I perceived as his professionalism, and I’m again faced with the lesson that we should put no one on pedestals; we’ll always be disappointed. Nevertheless, I talked with my classes about this (“Did he really not remember the event, or was he purposely lying to us?”), and we ended up going off on a short discussion of “false memory syndrome.” I asked them to think about this in their own lives – pictures from our early childhoods and the stories our families tell along with them; do we truly remember these instances, or have other people told us the stories, and because we know we were players, we believe with all our hearts that we remember? What if those storytellers remember the stories incorrectly? And how do we embellish our own stories over time? I hope this was a way for my students to consider that, just as some among us create our own stories that match our egos, other people can hijack our stories and recreate them to a point that we no longer recognize them but still have a desire to claim or reclaim them as our own; media has a way of helping the public take over other people’s stories (just think about the movie stars in entertainment magazines). We need to remain media literate; we have to keep these falsifications and hijackings in mind. Unfortunately, in the end, any of these situations involving such falsehoods, whether intended or not, will be another black mark on the field of journalism that is already suffering a crisis of honesty and accusations of bias. That discussion, however, is for another day.

By the way, I did not and will not offer an opinion about whether Williams was purposely trying to make himself look better with these stories. The fact is, no one will ever know for sure – maybe not even Williams himself. Sometimes just one weak moment, just one little lie, is all it takes to start down that slippery slope. We all select the past events we choose to remember, and the stories about our parts in those events, that allow us to move forward with our egos intact; we can spin our participation into something more than it actually was, telling and retelling it until we truly believe it, or we can underplay it, and others can do the same to us. Truth can be elusive, but for journalists it’s still absolutely necessary to be vigilant about remaining as close to the facts as they can; the public is depending on them.