At home news enters our lives early in the morning, through the SWR2 radio channel. We listen to it mainly for the classical music, but the hourly news keeps us in touch with local reality. These days – in fact, since the beginning of 2011 – local reality has often been overshadowed by global, world-changing events.
The news regularly includes interviews, and in the last days the kind of people interviewed has reflected the shift in the events in Japan. In the beginning there were correspondents – generalists, because a story often begins with generalities; the specifics come later. Then came the earthquake and tsunami experts, who were followed by nuclear experts. And this morning it was a medical expert, facing questions about radiation sickness, its symptoms and long-term effects.
Who will it be tomorrow?
We also get a daily newspaper, the Financial Times, which arrives by mail. One of us usually goes downstairs to pick it up from the postbox. This morning, Wife asked me to hurry up – perhaps there’s something about the nuclear reactor in the papers. Then, she changed her mind: “The news there is already a day old.”
News in the paper. A day old. Obsolete and irrelevant.
Now consider this:
1. A million people die of malaria each year.
2. 89% of the malaria deaths worldwide occur in Africa.
3. In Kenya alone, malaria kills about 34000 children each year.
4. Every 3.6 seconds someone on the planet dies of hunger.
These are regular, day-to-day occurrences. They do not make headlines. They do not appeal to our compassion. We hardly spare a thought for them.
But the events in Japan trouble us. Deeply. They create an imbalance and we do not know where to turn. Or how to turn away from the media that has been feeding us with mind-numbing facts and images. We gorge further, discuss it with friends and colleagues, express our sympathy (for the Japanese), outrage (at the nuclear lobbyists) and despair (at the ongoing battle in Fukushima).
All this time, children in Africa are dying by the minute.
But these Africans are outside our consciousness: how can we feel sympathy for someone whose condition we know so little about, whose situation we have to try and find out about instead of just skimming the headlines?
They are also outside our class: we can easily relate to the suffering of those Japanese who live like we do – in houses like ours, driving cars we recognize and shopping at the supermarket – but to understand the misery of the hunger-stricken child in a sub-saharan village, that is beyond us.
And as we relate to those Japanese, it strikes us that if it can happen to them it can happen to us too. Fear permeates through us, a fear we mistake for sympathy. Then, to make ourselves feel better, we donate money to rescue efforts in Japan.
Here’s The New Yorker on the 2010 BP oil disaster:
“But oil spills are saturated in blame and political confusion – and opportunity. There is a sense that they are not accidents but accidents waiting to happen, and thus acts of greed. As a result, oil-soaked birds and fish come to symbolize a reviled industry’s heedless behavior. Every year, as many as four hundred thousand birds are killed in America by electricity-generating wind turbines, but they do not make the cover of Time. Incremental ecological damage, even if it is severe, does not easily cause outrage.”
We can look at the world as a series of events, and as a set of processes. 911 was an event; the rise of militant Islam is a process. Newspapers and news channels mostly cover events; magazines like The New Yorker tend to cover processes.
It takes time to place events in the context of a process. It also requires distance from the event.
But we are hungry for news about events, and the people controlling media know it. They feed us with one event after another, in an order they define appropriate, and we consume them accordingly, not fully knowing what to make of them but satisfied that we are in touch with the world. We congratulate ourselves with our knowledge of current affairs. We talk with friends about the technology of nuclear reactors, and even draw a diagram on the whiteboard at office.
The day before yesterday our hearts went out to the brave Egyptians, yesterday to the courageous Libyans, and today to the grief-stricken but stoic Japanese. Who will it be tomorrow?