How does greater access to details of tragic news events affect the public?

By Chantal Braganza - Published on Jul 18, 2016
News media has always paid more attention to disasters than to resilience, says Janice Stein.

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In light of chaotic socio-political events across the globe these past few weeks, it’d be easy to think the world is falling apart. Between strings of international terrorist attacks, the coup attempt in Turkey, the European Union seemingly coming apart at the seams, the long slog of Donald Trump’s campaign and social unrest over police brutality in North America, are things really as bad as they appear? Has constant access to reports of disaster changed the way we view global unrest? As one respondent put it: Is the world ending, or does it just feel like it’s ending?

We asked three analysts, scholars and writers on global affairs to consider these questions. Their answers suggest that both can be true, and that threads from recent history have a lot to tell us about what we’re seeing today.

Bessma Momani is a professor of political science at the University of Waterloo and senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation. Janice Stein is a political scientist, and founder and former director of the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. Sarah Kendzior is a researcher and consultant in politics and media, and global affairs columnist at the Globe and Mail.

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With more immediate access to news because of instant reporting and social media, what do you think the stories of frequent socio-political chaos - such as Brexit and police shootings - do to public perception of global disaster?

Bessma Momani: It has two effects. On the one hand, there are people who are much better informed and have access to a great deal of information. They’re in tune with what’s happening, they understand the subtleties, they no longer depend on mainstream media to get analysis. They can get very [full] understandings of current events if they want to.

At the same time I think there’s an element of fatigue. Especially with news being so horrible lately, I can’t help but notice a broad spectrum of people, who you would presume would want to be in the know, needing to tune out. There’s a sense that it’s too much — and the past two weeks have been too much. There’s a sense that so much is beyond their control, that they can’t control things happening in the world, and for their own sense of being able to function in their own lives, they’d rather not listen to the news or go on Facebook and rather stay focused on the everyday things.

Janice Stein: News media of all kinds have always paid far more attention to disasters than to resilience, to failures rather than successes, and to wars rather than peace. How often do you read a story about a painstaking peace process that ends a war? There has always been a distorting picture that exaggerates violence, war, conflict and makes the random seem deliberate and consequential. We do this routinely with floods, hurricanes, violence and acts of terror. Highly visible and dramatic events seem to become far more likely than the underlying probabilities would suggest. We all need to apply a discount factor to what we read and hear.

Sarah Kendzior: I feel like the tipping point has been happening at a slower pace than this last month. There’s been a long buildup to the events that have happened recently. For example, 2008 and the collapse of the global economy and the reporting of the war in the Middle East have led to a lot of events: Trump, ISIS, a lot of the things we’ve seen in the world.

In terms of spread of news: social media has changed a lot. There’s been a rise in terrorist and authoritarian events, but also more discussion and seeing more firsthand testimony of victims. This is especially true of police victims, of police murdering black men in America. We couldn’t spread that kind of testimony virally 10 years ago. This does makes it seem like it’s increased, but it’s hard to tell because those kinds of stories have traditionally been covered up.

Have conditions of global crises, such as the one we’re seemingly in, simply become a new normal? Or is there something unusual about what we’ve been experiencing in the past few weeks?

Momani: I think [constant access to reports of upheaval] do make it harder to tell the difference. The new normal makes you jaded. It can make you hyper-aware and over-sensitized, and very fearful. Psychologists say there’s a natural reaction to think of events like this in the first person, and what it means in their lives. If we’re talking about events like terrorist and political upheaval, there’s that fear: “It could happen to me.”

That said, I do think there’s some interrelation. I feel like for the past five years I’ve been beating a dead horse here, but a lot of these problems seem to be rooted in our failure to deal with Syria.

In the case of Turkey, the coup was rooted in what the military saw as [Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip] Erdogan’s failed policies. The explosion of ISIS has been rooted in seeing a failed Syria as a not-neutral outcome. And if you want to add to that, the refugee crisis has added a wrong sense of xenophobia and a sense of right-wing political parties to be emboldened. What we saw with Brexit is what you could argue is a rise in right-wing rhetoric, also linked to the U.S. There is a common thread, and I don’t think they’re separate.

The Black Lives Matter movement isn’t directly linked to this, but the very idea of seeing that there is a role of activism today and that you can make your mark through these bottom-up initiatives is helping Black Lives Matter become a movement. It’s not connected to just the Middle East, but it’s another power struggle between citizens who want better of their government and society, and who have the tools to express themselves and hashtag a movement that would not have been possible 10 years ago. We saw this in the Arab Spring.

Stein: We have to be very careful about generalizing from the last few weeks. They do not constitute a pattern. That having been said, we are living in disruptive times that occur every so often. All three — terrorism, Trump, and Brexit — are the consequences of deeper forces of discontent with the global order that has been created since the end of World War II. The Middle East is experiencing a deep breakdown of the political order that shaped its last hundred years, and the aftershocks of this breakdown will ripple through the region and beyond for decades. Trump and Brexit both speak to an anger about growing inequality, deindustrialization and the downgrading of jobs, and to people’s sense that they are losing control over their lives.

These are not passing fads, but deeper underlying trends that are likely to continue unless some of these issues are addressed.

 Kendzior: As bad as everything is, I honestly feel we’re not at a tipping point yet. We need to see the results of this election. The ghost writer for Donald Trump’s book The Art of the Deal recently said that under Trump’s presidency, there’s a possibility of nuclear war. That’s a possibility. We haven’t seen the full consequences of Brexit. We haven’t seen how common these terrorist attacks that have been happening really are. We haven’t been able to establish if this is part of a pattern, or a bunch of tragedies colliding at once. We’re still rolling downhill, and we haven’t arrived there, because we don’t have anyone in a position with the broad trust of the public. That loss of trust is key.

Whether or not what we’re at a global tipping point, are there other moments in relatively recent history that echo the global unrest we’re experiencing now? What threads can we pull from those moments to apply here?

Momani: The way I saw the early 1990s — the successive news items from the fall of the Berlin Wall to intervention in Iraq — it felt like in those moments you couldn’t keep up with the news. But in 1991, the major news choices were CNN… and CNN. Today the access to information has its virtues and its vices. It’s fantastic for me as a scholar and analyst, but it also has its demoralizing aspects. When you have so much information, you do get overload.

Stein: The late 1960s are very reminiscent of today. The United States was mired in Vietnam, and anger at the war exploded across campuses and into the streets. In Europe, a peace movement was beginning to build. Western industrial economies were gripped by stagflation and anger was growing at elites who could not seem to “fix” the problem. That moment led to the “neo-liberal” decade under Thatcher and Reagan, and to the withdrawal of the United States from foreign wars. We are now at the beginning of the counter-revolution against neo-liberal economic policies and retrenchment at home. It is tempting to believe that world history swings like a pendulum — but that would impose too much order on the messy processes of history.

Kendzior: This is definitely the worst it’s been in my lifetime.  I was 13 in 1992, a time of the Los Angeles riots, the contentious U.S. election, and of billionaires spouting bizarre theories. The level of violence on a worldwide scale, the animosity, the total loss of trust in institutions (whether it’s the state or the media) — I feel that trust has been really eroded. But that’s been going on for two decades, especially during the Bush administration

It helps people get stories out there that are well researched that are against the grain, but it also lets all these conspiracy theories fly, and people can’t figure out what’s true. One of the only things we can see that’s true are photographs and stories about dead bodies in the streets; that’s the one clear truth that people can cling to. When that’s your truth, the world feels very bleak.

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