Journalism and Dignity

Recently I started following a German journalist, Theresa Bäuerlein, on Twitter (@Bojerlanski), who writes about “Meaning and Consumerism” for “Krautreporter.” I also subscribed to her Newsletter. She linked an article from Amanda Ripley in the Washington Post, which expressed the feeling I had had for months: “I’ve been actively avoiding the news for years.” The thing is, Amanda Ripley is a journalist, something which she compares with being a wheat farmer with a gluten allergy. Theresa wrote in her tweets a short appraisal of what Amanda wrote in her article, which is linked below:

“First, people need hope. “Researchers have found that hope is associated with less depression, chronic pain, insomnia and cancer, among other things. Hopelessness, on the other hand, with anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder.”

Journalists often believe that the best way to avert disaster is to make people aware of the potential for disaster, 24/7. That doesn’t work anymore.

Second, people need to feel that they can do something. “…Even if it’s just something small. That’s how we transform anger into action and frustration into invention. This self-efficacy is essential for a functioning democracy.”

Third, people need dignity. That requires really listening to them, not just reporting on them. Like my colleague @BentFreiwald when he writes about children and young people, or @martingommel about people with mental illness. “There’s a way to deliver news – even very bad news – in a way that makes us better off as a result. A way to trigger anger and action. Empathy alongside dignity. Hope alongside fear,” Ripley writes.”

I couldn’t find anything that spoke to me more after suffering a breakdown with depression a few years ago, and it made me realize that Western society is making itself sick, and that journalists are supporting this trend while assuming they are doing something important to help. We seem to be on an assembly line that is pulling us down a chute with no control over speed or direction. It’s also the repetitiveness of news coverage, especially on television, but also through endless retweets or shares on social media. Statements go “viral” without verification that they are true. People are pilloried and slandered many times over before anyone points out that it is a misquote. The apology is often overlooked because it is not posted with the same vigour.

We need people to start being journalists, as Amanda Ripley and Theresa Bäuerlein intend to do, but the question is whether the public will honour that commitment, because not only do we need such journalists, but we also need people who are willing to look for and pay for them and their articles. We seem to be a public that, having been fed sensationalism, finds everything boring as soon as it points to reality. Of course, it’s not just journalism that leads us down this path; the entertainment industry also tries to captivate us with increasingly shrill and shocking entertainment, ranging from superheroes to merciless military men wading through piles of corpses and showing a sickening scene of mourning for single heroes who fall along the way. When our entertainment doesn’t reach us emotionally in this way, we tune out, but it’s artificial and simulated, leaving out the real emotions that such tragedies would evoke. But that’s the superficiality and comic mentality trying to captivate their audience week after week. Meaningful stories take longer.

Theresa’s subjects, meaning and consumerism, hit home because journalism and entertainment have largely become consumerism devoid of meaning if we take the best-selling newspapers and the so-called “blockbusters” of entertainment as our benchmark. When the only goal of a headline is to sell a newspaper or get clicks on the Internet, our choices are all about emotionality and no longer about the truth or meaning of an issue. In the wake of this development, we have young people who seem to be just waiting to be emotionalized, often in the form of taking offense at some statement, with artificial outrage in an effort to impress their peers, which they inherited from the previous generation, and which was hyped only to make them “cool.” Social media supports this unnatural outrage, which takes on hysterical proportions and is enabled by people with cell phones who are so fascinated by what they read that they block out the reality around them.

Amanda Ripley writes, “the news crept into every crevice of life. I couldn’t avoid exposure — in my email inbox, on social media, in text messages from friends. I tried to toughen up. I gave myself stern lectures: “This is real life, and real life is depressing! There is a pandemic happening, for God’s sake. Plus: Racism! Also: Climate change! And inflation! Things are depressing. You should be depressed!”

Other people have different subjects that affect them in the same way, causing distress in all areas of life, virtually taking them over as though possessed by some demon that whispers in their ear. However, many feel this transform into paralysis instead of the ability to engage with the issues, and they become dysfunctional, and despair takes over. Amanda heard from so many people that they were going through similar issues and discovered that news-avoidance was increasing vastly.

This felt so much like the breakdown I had, although on the outside for different reasons, it had to do with lack of hope and perspective. If you end up in a situation in which you are (or feel) responsible for a multitude of things you can’t influence, although you are permanently pushed to find solutions (“be innovative” is what my boss said), in which you worry about the consequences of inaction whilst at the same time finding nothing meaningful to do about a situation, the body at some point takes over and switches off in some way. This is what many people go through just by being glued to whatever screens are available.

Amanda Ripley says we need hope, agency, and dignity in our lives. Hope as a reason to get up in the morning, something to believe in and motivate us. Agency as a sense of being able to do something, however small, so that “anger converts into action” (Ripley), and that society is looking for that something that we can do. Dignity is something that takes us out of our feeling of being powerless and irrelevant, and finding validation in what I am. These are not new, I learnt about these needs in my basic training as a nurse, which apply just as much to people with dementia as to you and I. The care we offered to people lacking their cognitive abilities involved validation, gentle guidance and humour, enabling them to have a sense of managing their lives, although they obviously couldn’t. If we can enhance such people in their crisis, surely people with cognitive abilities would also be receptive to something similar.

For me, this whole issue has to do with the lack of context in people’s lives. We have managed to cut lives up into cubicles of attention, in which people go from one cubicle to another without seeing the whole picture. Their focus is too often like a spotlight, rather than a floodlight. This is increased by screentime, glaring at cell-phone screens, instead of engaging with the world around us. It has to do with what Iain McGilchrist calls “left-hemispheric” vision, in which particulars are dominant and not the overall picture. The therapy in many cases involves slowing down, taking our eyes off what has made us sick, and a re-evaluation of what life is, of what nature has to offer, and how we operate in our environment. It is re-assessing the broadness of life and rejecting a narrow-minded view.