Thursday, June 21, 2007

Worldwide Grief, Part I

By Lars Trodson

I have been asking myself, since my days as a newspaper reporter and editor, what value there is in a story about a car accident or a house burning or the arrest of some idiot. I have never been able to get a satisfactory answer outside of the cliché: If it bleeds, it leads.

It is illustrative, perhaps, that as an editor who worked one Memorial Day weekend years ago, I made the decision not to lead the Monday holiday paper with a headline similar to one that I had read in my own paper, The Portsmouth Herald, the year before: “Two die in weekend collisions.” I went with a headline along the lines with “Weather shines on holiday travelers.” From a sales point of view, dumb.

My reasoning I think was sound. I was interested in the flipside of that original headline, because even thousands had traveled through New Hampshire safely. Isn’t that more to the point, or is it?

Both headlines are true. Undeniably, the deaths for the families involved is infinitely more important. But for everyone else? In the end, I still ask: what am I -- a person unconnected to those tragedies -- supposed too do with this news?

I asked myself that again when I woke up one fine morning a couple of weeks ago, and turned on the “Today” show. The lead story that day was of a teenager in the Midwest who had been abducted and killed. I sat and thought about this for a moment, shook my head, and wondered about the senselessness of the crime. But I also asked myself what I was going to do with the information. I couldn’t help. I couldn’t help. I also realized that I felt badly, and I went to work feeling slightly down, and also slightly helpless.

These news stories -- nine firemen dead in a conflagration just the other day, far away from where I live -- makes me feel the world is wobbly and tenuous. But I already knew that. It is not that these stories shouldn’t be told and, certainly, if someone goes missing , particularly a child, they serve a practical purpose in helping with a search.

But we are inundated with these stories, saturated with them -- they lead the nightly news, the morning news magazines, the tabloid shows, the local radio news minute -- and what they do is replace the art of actual reporting. They have pushed aside investigative news reports -- who has the time and money for that? An accident, a fire, a murder -- you can get all of that on the same day it happens. Trying to find out where our Vice President is, why that’ll take you a week. That’s a joke, but those things we really need to know take time to uncover, and they can be uncomfortable for the person doing the digging.

Does it make me callous or uncaring to think I don’t have to be aware of every tragedy happening in the world? Does it make me unfeeling to the needs of others? Should the family out in the Midwest even care what I think about what happened to them? But yet, after hearing details of this tragedy, I am affected. I then have to re-orient myself so I can enjoy a book, or a joke.

This is of course making me turn away from the very thing which should be a necessary part of life: the news. But the news keeps feeding me things that are incorrect, like knowing whether the candidates for President support gay marriage, or if they believe in evolution (thank you, Wolf Blitzer!).

I am fully aware the world is a terrible place. And to everyone who has ever experienced a tragedy, trust me when I say I understand and empathize with your pain. I also understand that anguish is universal -- and I wish it wasn’t so constant. I do. But even as tragedy happens, so do periods of enlightenment and goodness, and so do terribly important stories that need to be unearthed -- stories of injustice and corruption and malice. These we could and should hear more about.