FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

The Unreal Death of Journalism

Death is always in the news. From local car crashes to catastrophes in faraway places, deadly events are grist for the media mill. The coverage is ongoing — and almost always superficial.

It may be unfair to blame journalists for failing to meet standards that commonly elude artists. For centuries, on the subject of death, countless poets have strived to put the ineffable into words. It’s only easy when done badly.

Yet it’s hard to think of any other topic that is covered so frequently and abysmally in news outlets. The reporting on death is apt to be so flat that it might be mistaken for ball scores or a weather report.

Pallid coverage of the dying is especially routine in U.S. news media when a war is underway and the deaths are caused by the U.S. government.

When a news report breaks through cliches to evoke realities of carnage, the result can be memorable. Here’s a passage from an April 1999 story by Robert Fisk, reporting for the London-based daily Independent about a U.S.-led NATO bombing raid on a target in Yugoslavia:

“Deep inside the tangle of cement and plastic and iron, in what had once been the make-up room next to the broadcasting studio of Serb Television, was all that was left of a young woman, burnt alive when NATO’s missile exploded in the radio control room. Within six hours, the [British] Secretary of State for International Development, Clare Short, declared the place a ‘legitimate target.’ It wasn’t an argument worth debating with the wounded — one of them a young technician who could only be extracted from the hundreds of tons of concrete in which he was encased by amputating both his legs. … By dusk last night, 10 crushed bodies — two of them women — had been tugged from beneath the concrete, another man had died in hospital and 15 other technicians and secretaries still lay buried.”

Compare that account to the easy enthusiasm for NATO’s air war from New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who wrote a day earlier:

“It should be lights out in Belgrade: Every power grid, water pipe, bridge, road and war-related factory has to be targeted.”

Or consider the contrast between Fisk’s grisly account and the media jargon that the Times brought to bear on its front page that same week:

“NATO began its second month of bombing against Yugoslavia today with new strikes against military targets that disrupted civilian electrical and water supplies…”

Such contrasts — between facile journalese and human experiences of death — are also part of the standard media terrain much closer to home. Days ago, the state of California was all set to kill Michael A. Morales in a San Quentin death chamber. But news reports told of delays after two anesthesiologists refused to participate in the lethal injection.

Public acceptance of killing thrives on abstractions. And, in turn, those abstractions (like the phrase I just used, “lethal injection”) are largely facilitated by news media.

The reporting about the death penalty is usually light years from what really goes on. We’re accustomed to those kinds of gaps. By the time we become adults, we’ve seen thousands of televised narratives — from entertainment shows to newscasts — that purport to depict death but actually do nothing of the sort. It’s not hard to watch because so much about death is hidden from media viewers.

For those who champion death-dealing policies as solutions, whether administered by the “Department of Defense” or the “Department of Corrections,” euphemisms are vital. Fog prevents acuity about what can’t stand the light of day.

“Government officials don’t want the American public to view the death penalty as a lethal, destructive, violent act that isn’t really necessary,” says Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative of Alabama. “Therefore we sanitize and obscure the act of killing a person, who is no longer a threat to anyone, with protocols and procedures that are aimed at comforting the public. The problem is that intentionally killing another human being is always painful and shocking. As medical doctors, correctional staff and anyone who gets close to capital punishment quickly discover, there is no comfortable way to kill a human being who doesn’t have to die.”

But there are plenty of comfortable ways for news media to report on the killing of human beings.

NORMAN SOLOMON is the author of War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death.

 

 

 

More articles by:

Norman Solomon is executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, where he coordinates ExposeFacts. Solomon is a co-founder of RootsAction.org.

Weekend Edition
August 14, 2020
Friday - Sunday
Matthew Hoh
Lights! Camera! Kill! Hollywood, the Pentagon and Imperial Ambitions.
Joseph Grosso
Bloody Chicken: Inside the American Poultry Industry During the Time of COVID
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: It Had to be You
H. Bruce Franklin
August 12-22, 1945: Washington Starts the Korean and Vietnam Wars
Pete Dolack
Business as Usual Equals Many Extra Deaths from Global Warming
Paul Street
Whispers in the Asylum (Seven Days in August)
Richard Falk – Daniel Falcone
Predatory Capitalism and the Nuclear Threat in the Age of Trump
Paul Fitzgerald - Elizabeth Gould
‘Magical Thinking’ has Always Guided the US Role in Afghanistan
Ramzy Baroud
The Politics of War: What is Israel’s Endgame in Lebanon and Syria?
Ron Jacobs
It’s a Sick Country
Eve Ottenberg
Trump’s Plan: Gut Social Security, Bankrupt the States
Richard C. Gross
Trump’s Fake News
Jonathan Cook
How the Guardian Betrayed Not Only Corbyn But the Last Vestiges of British Democracy
Joseph Natoli
What Trump and the Republican Party Teach Us
Robert Fisk
Can Lebanon be Saved?
Brian Cloughley
Will Biden be Less Belligerent Than Trump?
Kenn Orphan
We Do Not Live in the World of Before
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Compromise & the Status Quo
Andrew Bacevich
Biden Wins, Then What?
Thomas Klikauer – Nadine Campbell
The Criminology of Global Warming
Michael Welton
Toppled Monuments and the Struggle For Symbolic Space
Prabir Purkayastha
Why 5G is the First Stage of a Tech War Between the U.S. and China
Daniel Beaumont
The Reign of Error
Adrian Treves – John Laundré
Science Does Not Support the Claims About Grizzly Hunting, Lethal Removal
David Rosen
A Moment of Social Crisis: Recalling the 1970s
Maximilian Werner
Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf: Textual Manipulations in Anti-wolf Rhetoric
Pritha Chandra
Online Education and the Struggle over Disposable Time
Robert Koehler
Learning from the Hibakushas
Seth Sandronsky
Teaching in a Pandemic: an Interview With Mercedes K. Schneider
Dean Baker
Financing Drug Development: What the Pandemic Has Taught Us
Greta Anderson
Blaming Mexican Wolves for Livestock Kills
Evaggelos Vallianatos
The Meaning of the Battle of Salamis
Mel Gurtov
The World Bank’s Poverty Illusion
Paul Gilk
The Great Question
Rev. Susan K. Williams Smith
Trump Doesn’t Want Law and Order
Martin Cherniack
Neo-conservatism: The Seductive Lure of Lying About History
Nicky Reid
Pick a Cold War, Any Cold War!
George Wuerthner
Zombie Legislation: the Latest Misguided Wildfire Bill
Lee Camp
The Execution of Elephants and Americans
Christopher Brauchli
I Read the News Today, Oh Boy…
Tony McKenna
The Truth About Prince Philip
Louis Proyect
MarxMail 2.0
Sidney Miralao
Get Military Recruiters Out of Our High Schools
Jon Hochschartner
Okra of Time
David Yearsley
Bringing Landscapes to Life: the Music of Johann Christian Bach
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail