I don’t really mean for my title to disparage the kind of media ethics taught in journalism school—I would never argue that fair comment, the treatment of sources, and privacy aren’t important issues for journalists to spend time thinking about and wrestling with. But the ways in which news stories affect audience perceptions of social and political questions seem to get short shrift in the conversation about media ethics. News media often provide audiences with initial constructions of remote events, so that our engagement with events is likely to be shaped in part by the way journalists communicate their reality.

My idea for this blog is to explore the relationship between journalistic construction of events and audiences’ moral understanding of those events. How we respond to social and political events depends on how we understand them—how we interpret their significance and whether we feel a responsibility or connection to them.

I would like to look especially (though not exclusively) at news consumers’ engagement with events that cause human suffering, which I consider an especially important and problematic element of the reader-news relationship. It’s an element that commentators and theorists have done a good job of defining, usually while lamenting the failures of news media actors to effectively produce such engagement. In his essay “Is Nothing Sacred? The Ethics of Television,” Michael Ignatieff describes how the deadlines that characterize all mainstream news media formats raise obstacles to the responsible communication of human tragedy: “The time disciplines of the news genre militate against the minimum moral requirement of engagement with another person’s suffering: that one spends enough time with them, enough time to pierce the carapace of self-absorption and estrangement that separates us from the moral worlds of others.” In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag addresses the limitations of photographic language in communicating news: “To set aside the sympathy we extend to others beset by war and murderous politics for a reflection on how our privileges are located on the same map as their suffering, and may—in ways we might prefer not to imagine—be linked to their suffering, as the wealth of some may imply the destitution of others, is a task for which the painful, stirring images supply only an initial spark.”

I think that examining the building blocks of news stories is a good way to get at the social and political ideas they convey. My particular interest is in the way that word use and syntax creates moral meaning, but I’m glad that I picked an ambiguous tagline— “a conversation about the language of the news”—because I want to reserve the right to discuss the visual and aural languages of news media as well.

And I really do hope that it becomes a conversation. I’m excited for the “comment” feature to become an integral part of this blog.

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