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A friend alerted me to this post on Juan Cole’s Informed Comment blog, and I wanted to share a CBS News video that Cole points to. It features Army Times reporter and former soldier Kelly Kennedy discussing in gruesome detail the horrible things that she witnessed as an embedded reporter in Iraq. She has a really interesting perspective on the question of whether to report physically graphic details of war, and discusses how her desire to communicate her growing understanding of soldiers’ experiences sometimes conflicted with concerns about burdening her audience with the harrowing details. She catalogs some of the reasons that war reporters don’t report the worst of what they encounter.

A big question about the coverage of Cyclone Nargis was raised for me from this post by Tami at Racialicious (it was originally posted at What Tami Said). Tami describes her own experience watching CNN coverage of the storm:

There were bodies and bodies and more bodies–Burmese men, women, even children, dead, bloated, discolored and rotting in the Southeast Asian sun; arms and legs akimbo as if their owners had been tossed like rag dolls. I know this is what death looks like, especially when it takes place in a poor country where the people have been colonized, militarized and rocked by ethnic strife and drug trafficking. But I watched the television and couldn’t help thinking that this video desecration of the already desecrated was another example of how American culture sees brown people as somehow less human.

She goes on to challenge the value of showing such graphic images of death, and to assert that the victims’ race influences media decisions about whether to show those images or not:

What are the chances that CNN will show the broken bodies of the 22 people killed in twisters that plowed across the central United States this weekend, y’know so we get “the enormity of the story?” We did not need to see graphic footage of victims to understand the enormity of Oklahoma City or 9/11. I do remember seeing some footage of the dead in Katrina–not as graphic as the Myanmar coverage–but we all know those folks weren’t American anyway, they were “refugees.” (Tongue firmly in cheek, here.

I especially take Tami’s point about images of dead people from the 2000 Oklahoma City bombing and the September 11 attacks. Showing such images would have been considered impossibly disrespectful. Is it the fact that the victims of the cyclone live far away, have different colors of skin from most of the U.S. news audience, and live lives that seem remote to us that makes it more acceptable to show images of their dead bodies?

When I brought this problem up with friends, one suggested that the answer to that question might lie partly in the immediacy of the Oklahoma and September 11 attacks to the majority of the U.S. news audience. For whatever reason, we felt those events as tragedies that were “close to home;” we didn’t need graphic images to understand them. So perhaps graphic images can serve as a (poor) substitute to whatever nationalistic or cultural feelings bind us to the victims of homegrown tragedies?

In general, I incline toward encouraging graphic language about—and images of—mass death, because I think it is one way to heighten the audience’s ethical awareness of the events that caused the deaths. I think it is an important means of piercing Michael Ignatieff’s “carapace of self-absorption and estrangement that separates us from the moral worlds of others.” But plenty of thinkers-about-journalism have argued that physically realistic images of death can serve as a sort of “war-” or “disaster-porn,” objectifying the subjects of the portrayal without engaging the reader on a deeper level. And if it is true that we see more images of nonwhite victims of natural disaster, then that understanding of graphic images has to be taken even more seriously.

Ignatieff goes on: “The struggle to believe one’s senses is at the heart of the process of moving from voyeurism to commitment.” So I guess the question is whether images of dead bodies help us to believe what is being described, or wheter—since it is so often “others” who are pictured—it reinforces or amplifies our estrangement from them.

A couple of weeks ago, the Chicago Tribune‘s public editor, Kathleen Parker. The Parker column, which sparked so much comment that McNulty devoted a second column to reader responses to the controversy, defends the argument of a white voter that Barack Obama is less than “a full-blooded American:”

It’s about blood equity, heritage and commitment to hard-won American values. And roots.

Some run deeper than others and therein lies the truth of Fry’s political sense. In a country that is rapidly changing demographically—and where new neighbors may have arrived last year, not last century—there is a very real sense that once-upon-a-time America is getting lost in the dash to diversity.

It’s pretty easy to see what upset the Tribune readers cited by McNulty in his column, and McNulty acknowledges that Parker’s ideas are likely to be “ridiculous and repugnant … to many, if not most, Americans.” But he goes on to defend the piece’s placement in the Tribune:

Anyone who believes that the race issue will be dormant in the general election—presuming that Obama is the Democratic candidate—is hiding from reality. It remains a divisive issue and, as Parker noted, some fear that “their heritage is being swept under the carpet while multiculturalism becomes the new national narrative.”

I think it is the news media’s responsibility to highlight not just the political stratagems but the attitudes that help create them.

The aim of the Tribune’s Commentary page is to display a wide range of subjective opinions, even those some may consider offensive. Printing a column is not the same as sanctioning it.

I don’t think I can agree with McNulty. Printing a column is not the same thing as agreeing with it, but it does amount to sanctioning it by assuming that its ideas will contribute in a meaningful way to the national conversation. There are obviously some ideas so offensive and devoid of intellectual and social value that respected newspapers would not consider publishing a column that espoused them. The Tribune decided that Paker’s column fell on the acceptable side of that divide despite her extensive use of what McNulty calls “code words” for racism.

To argue that the op-ed page is one big mirror on which is reflected the nation’s (or Illinois’) entire range of opinions, however offensive, is either disingenuous or silly. So is comparing the publishing of Parker’s column to printing news reports of racist attitudes (as McNulty does later in his column). It is indeed “the news media’s responsibility to highlight not just the political stratagems but the attitudes that help create them,” but when those attitudes are highly offensive, news reporting is the appropriate place to address them. The opinion page should be a forum for intelligent debate. By placing Parker’s racist column there, the Tribune asserted that it could contribute something to the national debate.

The dust-up recalled the uproar over the Washington Post‘s decision to publish in its Sunday “Outlook” section Charlotte Allen’s anti-feminist March 2 column entitled “We Scream, We Swoon. How Dumb Can We Get?” It’s quite a piece—deeply sexist, as thousands of outraged readers pointed out to the Post, and I think it’s also fair to characterize it as silly, somewhat rambling, and full of generalizations that don’t make a lot of sense. What struck me most about the piece was what seemed to me an utter lack of intellectual content. It’s hard to see what serious thinkers about gender issues would latch onto in order to engage it.

Post editors originally defended their decision to publish the piece by calling it “tongue-in-cheek” (a characterization that Allen herself disclaimed), but they addressed the controversy extensively in print, allowing several columnists to rebut Allen’s piece and publishing several of the many, many critical letters the newspaper received from readers. Deborah Howell, the Post‘s ombudsman, concluded that the newspaper shouldn’t have published the piece because it was a misguided attempt to coat offensive ideas in humor. I agree with Howell (though I don’t think the humor is the root of the column’s problem), and with MissLaura of Daily Kos, who argued that “Charlotte Allen isn’t the problem. The Washington Post is.”

I like that the editorial pages of respected newspapers are willing to publish controversial, and even blatantly wrong-headed, opinions. But such pieces are only valuable when they contribute something other than vitriol to the national debate(s). Garden-variety racism and sexism aren’t likely to do that. Nor are non garden–variety racism and sexism, for that matter.

I asked my friend Seth, an economics professor at Towson University and the genius behind The Blog of Diminishing Returns, to help me through some of the ideas in this (month-old, yes, I’m a little behind in my podcasts) On the Media interview. The interview is with Kevin Phillips, a political analyst and former Nixon aid, who argued in the May issue of Harpers that in striving to improve the U.S.’s economy’s image, politicians have altered the criteria behind economic statistics to the extent that international comparisons have become less meaningful. Phillips points to the different unemployment numbers collected by the government, and its choice to use a lower number:

KEVIN PHILLIPS: Well, let me start with unemployment. It’s always a question of what the workforce is and how you define people who aren’t quite in it. And this might sound like it’s fairly simple, but it’s not remotely. Government unemployment measurements run from the U-1 to the U-3 and up to the U-6. Now I’ll stop sounding like an aircraft designation [BROOKE LAUGHS] and back up here.

The U-3 is the number that they generally report. The U-6 includes a lot more people who maybe they’re looking for a job, maybe they’re not. There’s some larger explanation of why they’re not working. And the U-6 has unemployment about twice as high as the U-3.

He goes on in the interview to argue that the use of this statistic negatively impacts Americans’ understanding of our economy:

KEVIN PHILLIPS: Well, I think Americans tend to believe that we have lesser unemployment than Europe, and part of the reason for that is the media use the number which really is better than Europe’s, because frankly [LAUGHS] it’s a little bit loaded to be that way. I think, frankly, the one that runs between nine and ten is the more revealing.

I finished listening to the interview with a Chicken Little sense that there was no way to accurately report important data like unemployment and the GDP in ways that lead to useful analysis. Seth’s response to Phillips’ thoughts on unemployment data were comforting, though. Seth thinks that the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ unemployment calculations are not as byzantine as the interview suggests, and that the agency chooses to report the U-3 in an effort to increase understanding by allowing comparisons of U.S. unemployment data over time:

In the end I don’t think the Bureau of Labor Statistics is trying to game the system. They are using the traditional unemployment definition (U-3) so it is in some sense easier to compare across time. Although it is worth noting that the measure of unemployment must change overtime. For example the reported measure only included household heads until 1978, so in many cases women were excluded.

I guess the biggest journalistic lesson I see in both discussions is to vigilantly provide context to reported numbers. I would guess that many avid news consumers could cite unemployment and other economic data, but wouldn’t last long in a conversation about the way those numbers are measured or determined. It is certainly true of me.

Maybe one of these days I can convince Seth to give us his thoughts on the GNP/GDP switch addressed in Phillips’ On the Media interview.

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