In this modern world where we rely so heavily on journalism and the media and we consume it in so many different ways, we would hope to have some integrity from journalists. Unfortunately, we’re getting less integrity and more hyperbole, and if we want to know where it starts, we can look no further than journalism schools because a shockingly uninformed thing occurred last week at Syracuse University and we can all stand to learn from it.
After spending extended time in Liberia documenting the Ebola epidemic there, Michel du Cille was invited to Syracuse University to speak about what it was like but instead of being allowed to speak, du Cille’s invitation was revoked due to the panic over Ebola. In explaining her panicky actions, the Dean of the school said the following:
I have a responsibility to faculty, staff and most importantly, our students – and their parents. While I don’t want to contribute to the fears about the disease, I believed we needed to exercise due caution. I also knew at least one student was already worried about his visit and that those concerns would quickly spread to other students (and then their parents), as well as staff and faculty. We did not want to create a panic.
Unfortunately, Ms. Branham, that’s exactly what you did. You’ve stoked the fears and created a panic and you’ve legitimized people’s panic over something they will most likely not be exposed to in the near future.
The problem with her argument, that she was simply exercising due caution and avoiding a panic, is that you could make that argument in basically any circumstance after making an irrational decision. You could react, make bad decisions, or do something overtly stupid any time you want as long as you’re avoiding a panic.
Is that the kind of journalism we want to teach? Like it or not, this attempt to avoid a panic is doing exactly that: teaching that you simply allow fear from others (Branham said she was worried about others but never expressed that fear herself) to force you into making decisions you don’t agree with. That sounds to me like a recipe for disaster when it comes to journalists.
Consider this: Had the Wikileaks and Edward Snowden revelations not been made public out of fear of the panic they would create, would that have been good for society in general? I’d argue of course not, and so should any journalist worth their salt that isn’t being bought off by a politician in some way. That’s what real journalism is supposed to be. Instead, what journalism seems to be becoming is two things: How to get eyeballs with sensational headlines, and how to blow people’s minds with panic over things they really don’t need to panic about. That, to me, is not journalism.
CNN has finally scaled back its wall to wall panic coverage, and has stopped trying to turn everyone into quivering corner dwellers…
An epic overreaction. I wonder where that reaction was fomented, though? If you look at the bullet point list of stories, it talks about how the fear of Ebola has put a bridal shop in chaos. One of the people who contracted the virus in the US visited a bridal shop. That bridal shop is now having problems with business due to her visit. Why are people panicking? Because for weeks and weeks up until maybe this very headline, CNN and others have been fueling the fear. How did it reach the US? How was this person allowed on a plane? How many people do you incidentally come in contact with that might have had it? Facts went out the window a long time ago in an effort to internalize the story for people watching soundbites on CNN.
It’s very similar to the way the coverage of earthquakes go when you live in New York. Every time there’s a major quake in California, invariably a local news outlet will run a story on what would happen if there was one in New York and how much damage it could do. The answer, of course, is tons of damage, but the reality is that New York is at a very low risk for earthquakes. None of that matters, though. The “journalists” at our local news outlets tend to be of the mindset that if they can’t tell you how an earthquake in California can directly affect you and your life in the immediate local sense, you aren’t smart enough to be empathetic and care for your neighbors on the left coast.
You can apply this same logic of “what if it happened here” to major hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis and so on. It’s all interchangeable fear at this point, and it can all be justified as “we’re not trying to make you scared, we’re trying to make you aware.” In reality, they’re “making you aware” of things that you have the most minute chances of ever having to deal with in the hopes that in your fear of it happening “here” you’ll tune them in.
“Just trying to avoid panic,” they say.
Ducille wasn’t taking this panic quietly, telling News Photographer Magazine
“I am disappointed in the level of journalism at Syracuse, and I am angry that they missed a great teaching opportunity. Instead they have decided to jump in with the mass hysteria.”
Unfortunately, Mr. Ducille, that’s their game. Mass hysteria. That’s what draws eyeballs. Jeff Jarvis, who I admire greatly when it comes to journalism, said the following.
Indeed. Turn them off. Expose your kids to journalism instead of hysteria. Let them choose if they want to be at the talk or not and let their own fears be their guide, but certainly a school of journalism should not shy away from truth in the face of unsubstantiated and unnecessary panic. Doing so will almost certainly have one victim: the truth.