How many college students do you think can recount the events of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster? Back in March of that year, news media were relentlessly covering the huge earthquake, tsunami, and the subsequent failure of the power plant. Once all the details and facts were established, the media, at least in the United States, more or less forgot about the meltdown and whatever ongoing concerns it created. Only recently have we gotten a small update in the form of reports telling us how duct tape was being used to prevent the leakage of radioactive water. Because we so often don’t keep in at least occasional touch with these significant issues that have severe ongoing and potential human consequences, many college students are likely uninformed about developments in global issues such as this one.
Despite the widely acknowledged problems of the media’s coverage of tragedies like Fukushima, nothing is ever done about them. These issues range from effectively harassing victims in order to get their teary input on camera to overly speculative and sloppy reporting. CNN, now notorious for their stupendously reckless coverage of tragedies, is the poster child for this latter issue; during their coverage of the Washington Naval Yard shooting, Wolf Blitzer wondered aloud what, as the Los Angeles Times reported, “the shooter’s all-black ensemble might say about his possible motive.” In their effort to be the very first to break every morsel of news to us, CNN and Fox erroneously and prematurely reported that the Affordable Care Act had been overturned by the Supreme Court (which, for the most part, never happened) and both them and the Associated Press proclaimed a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing was in custody when no such thing had yet happened.
A huge reason behind these abysmal coverage issues lies in our never ending, 24/7 news cycle that, between television and the Internet, provides us with more content than we could ever hope to consume. In such a media, the only way for competing news sources to get the highest ratings and the most attention is to be the first to break the shocking and momentous aspects of a developing story. To do that, they’re willing to cross certain lines in their various reporting practices and compromise some of their integrity.
People crave various forms of instant gratification, from a quick dose of others’ new photos on Facebook to finding out the details of celebrities’ latest scandal. They will bestow the best ratings and the most attention on news media that fulfill these desires and report what will most surprise, excite, and directly affect them as well as what they can most easily relate to. Are Japan’s efforts to improve its nuclear power infrastructure significant? Yes, but not terribly exciting nor too relatable. Was Aaron Alexis’ all-black ensemble particularly significant? It could be if it can be tied arbitrarily into his intriguing background. CNN president Jeff Zucker helped prove all this when he noted that his network’s ratings leapt up to their highest in years right after misreporting the Boston arrest, despite the ding to their credibility.
We are much more likely to hear about stories that are in some way relatable to us, and these stories are more often than not domestic. The Sandy Hook shooting was much more relatable to the American people than displaced Japanese tsunami survivors, so we saw extensive coverage of only the former’s one year anniversary. Despite the devastating effect of both cases, one has an element of incredible human brutality that can better catch our attention. More Americans can relate to gun violence than being displaced by combined natural and man-made disaster.
While going after the best ratings and most attention is fine, news media should be expected to do so with integrity and with the fundamental ideal of properly informing viewers and readers of significant events. And while people are welcome to their quest for instant gratification, we should all make an effort to recognize and care about the significant issues at home and abroad that carry considerable human consequences. The world is now more interconnected than ever, and the effects of tragedy and disaster anywhere can come back to affect us in ways such as new policy or better awareness of preventable suffering. As college students and the future of this country, we certainly owe it to ourselves and others to be informed and caring, and thus able to influence and change the current media paradigm.