Media confessions: Ebolarama and other sensations

If you have been following the news recently, nay, if you’ve been living literally anywhere but the deepest fathoms of the Mariana Trench, you’ll know that the Ebola virus has been causing a stir of late. More precisely, you’ve probably noticed how it’s made everyone in the media from Anderson Cooper to the ‘poem­-for-­a-­penny’ guy downtown reflect self­-critically on the way we talk about crises real and perceived.

Last week, in the wake of the shootings on Parliament Hill this critique was palpable — the air rife with talk of journalistic integrity in mid­crisis reporting. In fact, rather than sparking a national conversation on Canada’s foreign policy and its ramifications or bringing questions of security and freedom to the fore, the attacks in Ottawa could easily be said to have raised anew the do’s and don’ts of disaster reporting more than anything else.

But this criticism of the media by the media doesn’t stop there, in fact this was only a continuation of trends we’d been seeing in the coverage of Ebola, ISIS, and other stories whose reporting has, by some accounts, suddenly shifted gears. Now it seems the fad among more reputable hosts of the news is a more toned­downed approach to such stories, that is, when they’re not outright criticizing the volume of hackneyed, overblown news stories out there about the imminent destruction of the Earth as we know it at the hands of the disaster du jour.

Why is it that suddenly sensationalism is out, and tedious, cool­headed journalism is in? Call me cynical, but surely there’s more to this than media consciousness waking up to itself, as if all the heads at CNN could someday be struck by the epiphany that 3­D graphics and catchy headlines aren’t all there is to journalism (but I dream digressively). Is the rhetorical backpedalling we’re seeing a trend that we can expect to last? Or is Rex Murphy and his league of old­fashioned, erudite reporters just another sensation disguised as humdrum?

Let’s play the devil’s advocate and explore the latter. Suppose sensationalism is the norm, that is, rather than inform, the news is first meant to grab your attention and keep you coming back for another hit of that equal parts sexy and terrifying ‘news’ (not so hard to suppose). We’ve certainly seen enough of this all year in the way media outlets have handled everything from downed Malaysian airliners to mice in coffee cups in order to conclude that that’s plausible.

Now suppose, then, where this approach’s newly found counter­thrust—that is, the media’s confessional self­-critique—fits in this interpretation of the news. Is it really so likely that after so many sensationalized school shootings, natural disasters, and infectious diseases in your backyard, that now is the time we start seeing a more mature and responsible way of telling those same stories? Or might it even be the case that this turn in the media reflects a self-­reproach on the part of society, like someone scolding themselves for staring with fixed fascination at a bloody car­wreck that doesn’t involve them? I, suspicious cynic I might be, want to add the third alternative that this might be just another way of keeping things fresh and novel. Whatever way you like, the question remains: is the media’s self­criticism here to stay?

Alex Loggie is a third-year philosophy and Spanish student at St. Thomas. 

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