The media as our culture’s oral tradition

Carrie JordanLife Design

Earlier this week, my partner left for a summer of working on a salmon fishing boat in Alaska. When I brought him to the airport at 4am, I noticed a fellow from the local news station on the curb filming with his camera man. I had an intuitive hit that told me he would approach us, but ignored it. As we were saying our tearful see ya later, the fellow approached us and shouted “Good morning!”

We had an exchange in which I enforced my boundaries and basically told him to go away. He was upset that we didn’t want to talk to him.

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I was upset because I knew that he was going to approach us, and I knew why—he wanted to exploit our situation for his job. Because our situation in that moment somehow fit in perfectly with his “story.” I realize that he’s just another human trying to do his job, but it was 4am and I can barely function at 4am in the first place, let alone be on TV.

There are lots of great journalists in the world with integrity and who are dedicated to the ethics that the field was built on. But many “journalists,” as they call themselves, are just hoping to get clicks, views, and TV viewers. The news has become shamefully sensational (and in some cases, it always has been that way).

For example, I have heard stories of deceitful journalists who approach victims of natural disasters to exploit their tears and sensationalize the story. Someone who is crying over her home that just got destroyed in a tornado probably isn’t in a state to be on TV. I am sure I could come up with a more graceful and sensitive way to approach alerting people to events like this.

I know that the recent events in Baltimore are and were very serious, but I often wondered how sensationalized the riots were. On Mic.com, I saw photographs of people in Baltimore taking care of the community and picking up trash after the protests. I didn’t see any of that on CNN.

When I was in high school, the New York Times published a story that sensationalized the issue of cheating in my high school. As a student that didn’t cheat, I was embarrassed and upset to be part of that generalization, and wrote a letter to the editor and wrote a college essay about it.

The media isn’t working for us—it has become a gross form of entertainment. Every culture has its oral history, oral tradition, myths and legends. In ancient cultures and indigenous cultures, the community would sit around the fire at night listening to their elders’ teachings, wisdom, stories about animals, and stories about life. This wasn’t necessarily a form of entertainment—the purpose of time around the fire with elders was to strengthen the community and to pass down teachings that would otherwise be lost.

For many people in our society, news is our modern version of storytelling. Instead of sitting around the fire listening to our elders, we sit around the TV listening to ego maniacs like Rush Limbaugh. The media tells us what is going on in the world, and what we should be paying attention to.

But a lot of times, the pundits are on the news telling us what to believe, parroting the same old narratives that have been stories we have been telling for decades—for example, “people on welfare are lazy” “climate change isn’t real” “liberals are this” “republicans are that.” These narratives do not serve us. They enforce the myth that we are all separate, and many times, they are lies!

What if journalism actually were un-biased and investigative, as it is supposed to be? What would we look like if the news outlets that people paid attention to were ones with sound ethics like Pro Publica, NPR, The Solutions Journalism Network, and On the Media?

Let’s examine what our media has on the agenda. Let’s examine what we are letting into our consciousness, and what stories we tell one another, and our children.

What would it look like if we told stories about heros and heroines? About problems we need to solve, and the solutions to the problems. It’s time to rise above the TV, and tell stories that serve us.