April 20, 2007

Death and Ratings

I have been struggling over the past week with how I am supposed to appropriately react to the tragedy at Virginia Tech. As someone who works at a university, this terrible event struck me much harder than I had anticipated. It brought me back to my first year of studies, in December 1989, when a similar horror occured at Montreal's Ecole Polytechnique.

Of course, a great deal of that emotion was fuelled by the wall-to-wall coverage on the U.S. news programs. At one point this week, every link on the top-half of CNN's web site was about the Virginia Tech shootings. I kept expecting to learn that FOX News had scooped its rivals and trademarked "The Worst Shooting in U.S. History". I was struck how, buried about a quarter down CNN's home page, I found a link that casually mentioned that 160 people had been killed in Baghdad that day. This terrible information, for whatever reason, did not warrant the honour of being placed in the special "Breaking News" section that adhorns the top of the page. Surely these innocent Iraqis, senselessley slaughtered as they shopped in a market, deserve to be honoured and mourned?

I mentioned this concern to someone, who replied, "It's because they're Americans". The logic being, we suppose, that an American tragedy trumps all other tragedies. I was further struck how on the same day as the CNN web site was filled to the brim with everything Virgina Tech, the CBC web site had placed the tragedy within context. There was a button to click on to enter a special commemorative mini-site, but otherwise it was postioned within the events of the day, amongst the global tidings of hopes and sorrows. Even the April 18 U.S edition of the venerable Financial Times had just one photo of the gunman on the cover and referred the reader to page 6, where three articles respectively discussed the effects on Virginia Tech's reputation, the gun lobby's gearing up to battle over rights, and the role of new media in the tragedy.

I struggled this week to respond appropriately because I am not sure how one can fight the pressure to care about some things more than others, particularly if one is an avid consumer of news media like I am. Is it any surprise, when I read that in 2003 nearly 43,000 Americans died in automobile accidents, that the American Cancer Society expects 559,650 Americans to die from cancer in 2007, or that at least 180,000 Iraqis have been killed as a result of the U.S. occupation, that in the midst of such terrifying numbers I channeled my anger and fear and finally broke down and cried when I watched a young woman on CBS in her Virgina Tech sweatshirt talk about how she has lost her best friend?

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