Category Archives: cycle

a problem

A screaming comes across the sky: the familiar roar of the growing Media Event, gathering power as it leaves the launchpad – the shootings at Virginia Tech – behind it. It has happened before, and it will happen again, and we know exactly how it will work: cover stories and TV coverage of Seung-Hui Cho will proliferate for the next few weeks, while journalists try furiously to get to the bottom of what caused this, feeling out the endless ramifications.
I don’t have any noteworthy opinions on Cho. I am, however, interested in the news cycle and how it impacts the way we think about the world we live in. This is something brought home last week by this post from Wonkette, which points out that 160 people were killed in Iraq at roughly the same time as the Virginia Tech massacre. The tone is crass, but I think it’s on target: estimates that 700 people died in Iraq last week, over twenty times the number killed in Virginia. That’s not a ratio reflected by coverage in the American media: looking at the front pages of The New York Times for the past week, I find seven stories on Cho, two on deaths in Iraq. It’s a strange and problematic disparity when you think about it. While it’s difficult to predict where and when the next school shooting will occur, there’s a high probability that a similarly high number of people will die in Iraq in the coming week. Predictability doesn’t translate into preventability, but there’s some correlation: we can still do something about Iraq.
The media is very good at reporting on sharply punctuated events (the death of Anna Nicole Smith; the rise and fall of Sanjaya; French politics when there’s an election happening). The news cycle feeds on novelty. I’m sure in the weeks to come we’ll learn more than we ever wanted to about the sad life of Cho. The media’s not very good at reporting on things that go on for a long time: as the war in Iraq grinds past its fourth anniversary, it’s hard for anyone to get excited about what’s happening there, no matter how horrific they are. Any number of similar long-standing issues are similarly poorly served: when was the last time you heard about what’s going on in New Orleans? Afghanistan? post-tsunami Indonesia?
This becomes an if:book issue simply because temporality has become such an enormous part of the way we deal with electronic media. The past few years have witnessed the ascendency of blog-based writing online; when we read blogs, we tend to read the most recent posts, to look at what’s new. This works very well for targeting certain sorts of problems: a snippy post at Boing Boing about some perceived wrong will target thousands of would-be hackers’ wrath. But we don’t seem to have a good way to deal with big, lasting problems that aren’t changing quickly, in part because the media forms that we have to use are so strongly time-based. Historically, this is a space in which books have functioned: consider the role of Thomas Paine’s pamphlets or Uncle Tom’s Cabin in fomenting past wars. An open-ended question: how can this be done in today’s media environment? Are the forms we have good enough? Or do we not know how to use them?