Navigating Media in Our Dangerous World

****This post contains content that may serve as a trigger for those who have faced traumatic experiences**** 

Within less than 2 months this spring, Alberta's two biggest cities were rocked by horrific and senseless crimes - stabbing attacks of unprecedented severity. In February, a worker at an Edmonton supermarket warehouse is alleged to have attacked six of his coworkers, killing two of them. In April, the guest of a University house party in Calgary is alleged to have stabbed five young people to death. This past weekend, violence in St. Paul left a priest dead, police officers injured, and the alleged gunman killed as well. These crimes have devastated Albertans and left us collectively shaking our heads. What led up to these horrible events? How could they happen? Who could do such things? One certainty following violence of this scale is the flood of media coverage that seeks to provide answers to questions such as these.

At its very best, media reporting can help to provide context, background, and information about these troubling events. Through their work, good journalists pose the difficult questions that we as a society may need to ask about public safety, treatment of mental health disorders, and crime and punishment. Sensitive reporters also assemble very humanizing and compassionate accounts from survivors and others close to the events. At their worst, journalistic accounts seem to lose any sense of perspective and instead focus myopically on grisly details and disturbing images. These stories are thin and feel voyeuristic and even exploitative. We see many of these examples in the hours and days following extreme violence as a trickle of reporting invariably turns into a tidal wave and story after story (with little to differentiate them) start getting pushed to the front page of online news sites.

The internet has changed the way we consume pretty much all information and it allows unprecedented access to the best and worst of media coverage. In just a few minutes spent clicking around online we might come across a dozen or more links that have been posted, shared, and commented upon. In our need to make sense of horrific events that have taken place close to home (and around the world), we can find ourselves drawn into a spiral of graphic and disturbing content that can begin to have an effect on our thoughts and feelings. We might be reminded of previous trauma we faced directly or indirectly. We might start to develop a distorted view of the frequency of violence in our communities. We might start looking at strangers and even our neighbours with mistrust. Our belief in a just world can start to be eroded - for some of us, a safe world with islands of danger can start to morph into a dangerous world with only islands of safety. Our passing interest in stories of the day can shift toward the compulsive as more and more details are revealed over time. 

As I browse around online today, I see that the stories about the Calgary attacks have largely tapered off, though the St. Paul incident continues to loom large. In a matter of days or weeks, the news will shift back toward the more mundane and predictable events occurring in our province. However, as trials are announced, evidence is presented, and the fates of those accused are determined, an entirely new round of reports, accounts, and editorials will surely begin. Of course, acts of violence are inevitable in a free society and their stories will always be told. Some will be told sensitively and respectfully and a good many others will not. Whichever the case, and whenever the next barrage might present itself, I've compiled a few things to consider to make sure we are taking good care of ourselves while trying to make sense of our world through the media.

1. Give yourself a break from the news 

Just because every media portal is plastered with articles, newscasts, and images about a given incident does not mean that we need to read, watch, or view every one. Many of these articles and newscasts seem to regurgitate the same details and offer little new information. Some of us may find that we generally avoid all news about violence and other cruelty in our world. For the rest of us, a good start is to simply recognize when to take a break from the content.      

2. Talk to others about your thoughts and feelings

Stories on the worst tragedies always evokes strong feelings: sadness, anger, confusion, among others. This is largely why we are drawn to them. We'd be wise to ask ourselves, what do we do with these feelings? Do we ignore them? Push them away? In our need to make sense of the senseless actions of others, it can be helpful to talk with supportive people about these events. Sharing this pain, confusion, and sadness can help us to remain connected and can provide a supportive outlet for these feelings. 

3. Take some sort of action

Human tragedies tend to erode our sense of order in the world, which can in turn leave us feeling out of control and powerless. While we usually can't do anything to affect the outcome of a situation we hear about in the news, taking some sort of meaningful action can help us to make sense of our own place in our imperfect world. Often there are opportunities to attend a vigil, which can help community members to pay respects and find closure. Alternatively, a donation of time or money to support victims of crime or a community organization that we believe in can help us feel less powerless and with a greater sense of autonomy and control in our own life.   

4. Try to see beyond the suffering

One aspect of human tragedy that is not often the focus of media reporting is the resilience of individuals and communities. Helen Keller said that although the world is full of suffering it is full also of the over coming of it.  However, if we are not careful, we'll miss the good in the world, the resilience of our neighbours, and the overcoming of suffering that happens every day. We must seek out the ample evidence that there is more right in our society than wrong in it, and we must go beyond the media headlines to do so.