If you were to own a newspaper and set your editorial direction solely based on the number and intensity of comments posted on your website, for the most interest, you’d probably want a front page story with the headline “Abused dog breaks choke-chain, saves children from burning car — and donates kidney.”
This is more than a little bit facetious, but it does make an interesting point about news, particularly that strange concept of “local” news, and how we see the way we fit into our own personal worlds.
Simply put, it’s remarkable the reaction that stories get when someone can slide their feet right into the shoes of the people they’re hearing about — the reaction is sometimes amazingly disproportionate to the stories themselves.
Pet owners — and other animal lovers — react almost violently to animal abuse stories, and react to them in a volume and stridency that is almost frightening: if you are convicted of beating and starving a dog, otherwise calm and easygoing people seem to have no qualms about suggesting that you should be starved and beaten yourself.
Likewise, stories that involve injuries to or deaths of children garner a visceral reaction, especially from parents whose children might be in the same age range — or even sometimes if you simply can remember your children being the same age.
All of this is a roundabout way of approaching the multiple murders of children and teachers at the Sandy Hook school in Connecticut. The story is devastatingly “local” — it involves innocent little children like our own, in schools like ours, and in the process, strikes right to the heart, both from the point of view of compassion and from the deep and unspoken parental fear that events like that sort of shooting are not beyond the realm of possibility anywhere. It’s too close to home.
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Now, there may be valuable changes that come about because of Sandy Hook. Not the least of them might have to do with U.S. debate about whether or not private citizens really need extended-sized magazines for weapons — and what possible reasons there are for people to be allowed to stockpile war-worthy stores of ammunition in private homes.
But that’s not the news that is right now: the news that is right now involves playing on the shock we all feel over horrific events at, of all places, an elementary school.
News organizations are aware of exactly that, and some play to that in their coverage, sometimes to almost obscene extents. It is not for nothing that the term “disaster porn” was coined.
It’s something worth thinking about in this tragic, almost unimaginable event. If we couldn’t put our feet directly into the shoes of those parents and kids — if, instead of Connecticut, a gunman had attacked and killed children and teachers in Irkutsk or the Congo — would we be reacting the same way?
The same day as the tragedy at Sandy Hook, a knife-wielding man attacked and wounded 22 elementary school students in Chenping, a village in Henan, injuring two of the children seriously. That’s probably news to many.
It’s also one of many recent knife attacks on groups of children in that country.
There’s too close to home — and too far away. And for that, we might have to look honestly at ourselves.