Listening to the rhetoric that goes back and forth on twenty-four-hour news, we have become a nation that seeks ratings rather than the truth. There are so many misinformed opinions that really amount to an emotional reaction to the world around us. We have become a nation obsessed with the latest “thing.” We instead react to the loudest and most outrageous sound bite of the night and are not even really sure about the message it has relayed. We don’t worry if the information was factual, only how it was said. We have come to the place where it is more important to decide the language used or whether we think someone is even allowed to speak and then we randomly find reasons to nullify the speaker by resorting to insults, interruptions, or personal attacks because everything we do now is based strictly on our emotional reaction and not on an intelligent response to factual information.
Maybe I am being unrealistically nostalgic when I say there was a time when we wanted to know the truth. Haven’t we always wanted to be informed and understand what was really going on in the world around us? But even as I ask this I realize we have probably never been a nation that has had total transparency. Networks and governments have always subjectively censored our news and if we wanted to know more we had to dig around on our own. Our emotional reactions rather than our intellectual understanding have always fueled us. And I guess in a way all we really do have, that is truly ours, is our own very personal emotional response. We refuse to let go of that vague notion that our opinions (even our completely overwrought emotional ones) have merit because the First Amendment guarantees us freedom of speech. In other words, the constitution validates our emotional reactions and allows us a voice.
Turn on any local or national news channel and it doesn’t take long before we are barraged with split screens of talking heads trying desperately to be the one that gets the headline. There is a loss of shared factual news and more bantering opinion that often results in several people talking over each other and cutting each other off until the viewer cannot even understand anything that is being said. This is not dissemination of facts. Nor is this simply reporting; this is persuasion in its most disruptive form.
Now, I am in no way saying that the news we have gotten in the past was accurate, or without slant or opinion. But I think there was this seeming sense of integrity that is completely lost now. The falling back on supposition and personal interpretation becomes something unavoidable in an effort to fill air time when waiting for the real facts to come in. This instantaneous need for all the facts becomes an understandably impossible task. Stories that involve active shooter events, bomb threats, or any of the various other big news stories that have happened in the recent past, take time to settle. They take time to gather facts, names, places and often all of these things are illusive in the time frame that we expect them to be reported. Sometimes these events take days or even weeks to decipher. These incidents are explicitly aimed at causing exactly this type of disruption. Confusion, misunderstanding, mistrust and total misinformation hit the news media as well as the public with deadly accuracy. And our demand is to get it out to us fast. We want the news. We want it now. We want to have all the answers in the two minutes it takes to microwave our coffee because we don’t have time anymore to wait. Don’t have time to stop. Don’t even have time to think. So we are trying to cram the necessary information we need in between our over scheduled lives and we place the burden on our newscasters who many times have no more information to give out than we have. So we resort to opinionated social media sources for our facts. And this, finally, becomes the scariest thought in the entire picture. We have begun to put our trust in a social script that is based solely on opinion –fact-based, or not.
We have always been a society that has been persuaded by the charismatic. We will follow a clever or forceful orator anywhere because they provoke trust and some unsaid contract. Because they appear to be a well-informed natural leader we assume they have our best interests at heart. But as we have seen in the past, charisma and the ability to invoke a crowd to action is not the same thing as being informed so we can make our own choices. And the result is a manipulated false sense of security that we understand what is happening in the world around us.
I don’t envy the role of the newscaster in today’s world of unknowable events. There is any number of horrific stories that come across our airwaves daily. And many times newscasters are caught in the emotion of the moment just as we are. I applaud how many have held up their integrity and kept us calm while keeping us informed in times like the attacks on 9/11 as well as the too many to name active shooters in our schools and higher education institutions.
So how do we balance all this as a nation? How do we navigate this new terrain? The answer is that there is no easy answer and these problems only continue to get muddled in the day-to-day of how violent of a society we have become. We expect to see the horrific or the frightening when we turn to the news and in the coverage of these things the public seems to demand a sort of P.T. Barnum flash and dance coverage. Aside from expecting a twenty-four-hour, wall-to-wall news flow, we want one that entertains. We want one that makes sense of the things we are seeing and we want one that interprets more than informs because we can’t make sense of where our world is right now.
It’s frightening at best to think we have been so overloaded that we want to hand the reigns over to someone else to decipher. It has all become too much. But we can’t run away from what is happening in our world; we have to stay informed. We have to find news sources that are as balanced as possible so that we can sit and digest what we are being fed. And if what you are being fed gives you indigestion, you must find another source that gives you the rounded information you need and that doesn’t present only one side or one type of opinion.
You have to find the news sources that you can trust to help you to stay informed. You have to find the sources that speak to what is happening in the community around you. Yes, there will always be the dog-and-pony shows and while they are entertaining, we have to remember that these are frightening and uncertain times; entertainment will only take us so far. We have to take it all much further so we can understand what is really going on for ourselves so that we can know what we need to do for our families and our local community.
Being informed is only the first step.
Understanding and acting on that information is the next.
Joan Hanna has published poetry, creative nonfiction, fiction, book reviews and essays in various online and print journals. Hanna’s first poetry chapbook, Threads, was named a finalist in the 2014 Next Generation Indie Book Awards. Both Threads and her second chapbook, The Miracle of Mercury, are available through Finishing Line Press. Hanna has previously served as Assistant Managing Editor for River Teeth, Assistant Editor for rkvry Quarterly Literary Journal, Managing Editor for Poets’ Quarterly and Senior Editor at Glassworks. Hanna holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and teaches creative writing at Rowan University. You can follow her personal blog at Writing Through Quicksand.