Time magazine recently posted their top ten photographs for 2011. http://lightbox.time.com/2011/12/07/time-picks-the-top-10-photos-of-the-year/#10 Almost all the photographs depict either directly or indirectly conflict and war (the exception is one related to a natural disaster - the tsunami in Japan). Our society has been conditioned to accept that it is necessary for there to be conflict for something to be newsworthy. As the old newsroom saying goes “If it bleeds it leads”, which meant a story or photograph was more likely get the lead spot on the front page if it depicted tragedy. I suppose this is partly due to human nature. The part of human nature that can’t turn away from watching a train wreck. Or the almost involuntary habit of rubber necking as one drives past a collision on the highway. These scenes of destruction and mayhem evoke a deep seeded reaction that is related to being human and aware of our own mortality.
Besides these individual emotional reasons for images of conflict being singled out and emphasized I believe there are bigger motives at work. As with anything in the world today profit is definitely a motivation. If you were to ask the editor who espouses “If it bleeds it leads” why to follow this he will reply, “It sells papers”. That may or may not be true. It is a sad indictment for journalism that the prime motivating factor of how news is displayed and disseminated is not by what is of importance and what is true, but what will sell.
It is understandable to some extant why profit is important even in journalism because after all newspapers and other news outlets have almost always been businesses. However since the late 1980’s and early 1990’s the balance has been skewed from profit being a byproduct of good journalism to it being the sole purpose for doing journalism. This change occurred mainly as a result of the realization that there was money to be made, so corporations started buying up newspapers and other news outlets. After this occurred less emphasis was put on the ideas of journalists being gatekeepers and upholding the ideals of truth and democracy and more emphasis on give the public what they want because it sells. I believe that much of the vitriol of discourse in the public sphere today and the divisive culture that is the norm now is a direct result of this change in our news now being a commodity. Because it is a commodity it is presented to us in such a way that emphasizes conflict because that is what stokes the fires of profit.
With the 24 hour ongoing news cycle and the bombardment of information that comes from every direction and right to us on mobil devices there is this need by those in the media business to have to grab us by the throats and say “look at this”. It makes it seem like the world is spiraling out of control and that things are worse now than ever before. There seems to be a constant drum beat of people predicting the end times in one form or another. Granted there is much tragedy and human suffering in the world today. As John Mellencamp song from his album “Lonesome Jubilee” goes, these are “Hard times for an honest man”. But are these times any tougher than the great depression or WWII era of our parents and grandparents? I suppose it is all relative, but things sure seem worse now because we are constantly inundated with images and stories of human loss and tragedy.
Before the internet, CNN and etc. there were many stories that didn’t make it to everyone unless you really went out of your way to find them. For example a recent story of a woman in Texas who shot her children and then her self after being denied food stamps may not have been reprinted in papers all over the U.S., and even if it were it would have been a short news brief that you might have skipped over. Now that story is front and center online and everywhere and is hard to miss.
By no means am I advocating not covering the hard news of conflict and human suffering. It is important for people to have knowledge and to be informed, especially since we live in a Democracy and are supposed to be able to have the ability to have an effect on the leadership of our country. However, I believe there needs to be more of a balance and lots more perspective.
In a 1961 speech President Dwight D. Eisenhower (a decorated army General) warned the nation, “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” Unfortunately, I believe that we have fallen victim to what Eisenhower warned us against, and the media is complicit. It is complicit because it has fed us a steady diet of war, tragedy and human suffering and has made us numb. Our country has been constantly at war the past decade and it has become something that is accepted and is just a part of our everyday reality. There is no personal sacrifice for these wars as was the case of the generation of WWII that rationed and had bond rallies.
It is sad that most of us just accept that these photographs that my friend Sarah Nelson described as “a reminder of how full the world is of man-made human tragedy” are the top ten photographs of the year, when there are many many photographs that depict that the world is also filled with human kindness and goodness as well.
I spent almost two years photographing the story of such goodness and understanding amongst disparate people of the world and published a book to tell the story of the ongoing legacy of the Peace Corps which turned 50 this year, and monumental event that you would think would be hailed in the press as one of our countries great achievements. Instead the media’s focus was turned to the scandal of how the Peace Corps handled (or failed to handle) instances of assault. Now, don’t get me wrong, that was a very important story that needed to be told, and positive action came out of the telling of it - legislation being passed. However, by focusing only on the negative the mass media threw the baby out with the bath water.
Unfortunately in today’s media climate a narrative is decided from the start, and any deviation from that narrative is not accepted. My book “Making Peace with the World” was reviewed in the National Press Photographers News Photographer magazine, and one of the criticisms of that review was my book did not touch on the issue of sexual assaults. This floored me because I lived with my volunteer subjects and photographed their daily lives and published an honest (and not-sensational) portrait of what it is like to be a Peace Corps volunteer on a day to day basis in this day and age. Yes, there are many challenges to being a Peace Corps volunteer. In the larger picture over the 50 years of Peace Corps the numbers of volunteers to be victims of assault is not any larger than the number of victims of assault on a major college campus. Of course anytime there is even just one person who is victimized, it is tragic and everything should be done to prevent it. However, it is also tragic that the greater story of all that is positive of the 50 years and thousands of volunteers should be negated because the media’s need to sensationalize. I know that there those who will protest my view of this, but if so you are not misunderstanding my position. I am in no way advocating that the story Peace Corps volunteers of the victims of assault should be made any less important. I am saying that it shouldn’t negate everything else, and that is what is happening with all the media. That is why all ten pictures in Times top photographs are depictions of tragedy and suffering and is not a single photo showing a positive experience such as any one of the photos from my book. To me they are all just as important and valid as any of the Time’s top ten. Unfortunately, because of our current media climate that does not value such stories, very few people will see my work depicting positive human interaction. They will only get the images of the negative of war and conflict because we have been led to believe that is what is newsworthy and that is what makes good photojournalism. Conflict and tragedy sells. If it bleeds it leads.