|Number 531||May 17, 2013|
This Week: Death, Danger, Fear, and Media
It was just a couple of months ago (February, actually) that I published the series called "How The Structure of Media Distorts Reality." As fate would have it, this past month offered a sort-of case study that illustrates the point beautifully. Here I introduce the idea of categories, which I will discuss in more depth in the near future. It has to do with how we create meaning out of the endless avalanche of facts and news that come into our heads. A look at the media's coverage of three recent disasters gives a hint of how systems work, and that's so interesting to me that I seem to have, once again, published an extra-long edition of Nygaard Notes.
I quote extensively from a couple of other sources, but essays #3 and #4 are my attempts to make sense of the whole mess. Let me know if I've succeeded!
Digging ever deeper,
This week's "Quote" of the Week has to do with the idea of categorization, which is the theme of this week's Nygaard Notes:
"How is it that we label some acts of violence with the brush of global terrorism while others are relegated to the more mundane category of everyday violence? Tsarnaev brothers were instantly characterised as terrorists, and Muslim terrorists at that, with a national and social media frenzy dissecting their crimes boosted by the live spectacle of the 'manhunt' in Boston.
"Yet in the same week, an explosion in a fertiliser factory killed 14 people and caused enormous damage to a small town in West Texas—with little media attention. The Boston Bombings were deliberate acts of terror committed by villains targeting the innocent; the Texas explosion while tragic, was seen as accidental—as opposed to the outcome of the deregulation of industry and safety standards—and therefore easily forgotten."
From an essay that was published on the alJazeera website May 3, called "May Day: Reflecting on Bangladesh Factory Disaster and Corporate Terror," by Paula Chakravartty and Stephanie Luce.
As I was looking into the coverage of the past month's Big Three stories (Boston Marathon bombings; West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion; Bangladesh garment workers disaster), I happened to be reading an essay called "The Media Food Chain and the Functions of Journalism." This essay appeared in a July 2011 report from the Federal Communications Commission entitled "The Information Needs of Communities: The Changing Media Landscape in a Broadband Age." It was so directly relevant to the points I am hoping to make in this issue of the Notes that I will quote from it rather extensively here.
The key fact you need to know before we start is that the newspaper industry has been shrinking rapidly for the past decade and more. The Pew Research Center reports that newsroom employment in the U.S. dropped to its lowest point since records began in 1978. After hitting a high of over 56,000 in 2001, newsroom staffs have been cut by almost 16,000 workers, or about 30 percent of the total. Here are some things that the FCC report had to say about this (with emphasis added by Nygaard):
Noting that newspapers do the majority of the investigative reporting in our system, with TV and radio serving more or less as headline services amplifying the work of the newspapers, the Report notes that "the contraction of newspapers not only affects their readers, but the whole information food chain. In theory, TV and radio could have filled the vacuum left by newspapers, but our research indicates that they are not doing that."
The Report notes a number of functions performed by "21st-century media." Among other functions, the Report lists the functions of Witness and Watchdog. Here's some of what they say about the Witness function:
"Whether the event is a tsunami or a press conference, coverage of news that transpires before our eyes, or our phone cameras, has gotten better. But in other ways, the current system is a step backward. No journalist was present in Bell City, California, to witness the Bell City Council raising the salaries of city officials again and again over the course of several years. Many parts of state and local government now go unobserved by the scrutinizing eyes of journalists. Moreover, witnessing has never been simply about watching something unfold; it also means observing situations over time, noticing slow-building crises—such as the rise in the number of soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder. Reporting of that kind does not require someone to watch a single event but to follow, and draw together, hundreds of private agonies.
[NYGAARD NOTE: I would add another important result of having third parties witnessing powerful people and institutions: People tend to behave differently—that is, better—when they know they are being observed.]
In terms of being a Watchdog, the Report states that "On this function, the current media system appears to be worse than before, at least at the local level. To be sure, the move to put more government data online has enabled a mix of citizens and reporters to hold institutions accountable. But a crucial aspect of watchdog reporting is finding out information that someone wants covered up, or, less conspiratorially, pulling together threads of information that do not at first seem related. Newspapers, local TV stations, and local radio stations employ fewer reporters now than they used to, and many of those that have survived have become more like 1930s wire service reporters—filing rapidly and frequently, doing fewer interviews, and spending less time pressing for information. This has resulted in a shift in the balance of power—away from citizens, toward powerful institutions. The watchdog reporter hates a press release; the busy reporter often loves it. . . . People are naturally inclined to withhold information that makes them look bad. This is true for government, corporations, labor unions, universities, and any other type of institution, whether the information is in the form of handwritten scrawl on paper documents or digits in databases. Usually, dirty secrets must be "found out"—no easy task—and the people who are most likely to have the time, independence, and skills for the job are full-time professionals..." Like, for instance, reporters.
The Report develops the point about what it calls "Power Shifts" occurring in the news industry, saying that "our on-the-ground research turned up numerous examples of a . . . power shift, away from citizens and toward institutions. Since surveys reveal that Americans hold reporters in low esteem—and may associate them with rich and powerful TV personalities—some may be skeptical about the notion that a decline in the number of journalists could shift control away from citizens and toward the powerful. But this is what we have concluded. Reporters who have less time per story become more reliant on news doled out by press release or official statement, which means that they report the news powerful institutions want us to know rather than what has been concealed. That is a power shift. [A 2010 study by the Pew Center] concluded that governmental institutions, increasingly, were driving stories rather than reporters: 'As news is posted faster, often with little enterprise reporting added, the official version of events is becoming more important. We found official press releases often appear word for word in first accounts of events, though often not noted as such . . . Government, at least in this study, initiates most of the news. In the detailed examination of six major storylines, 63% of the stories were initiated by government officials, led first of all by the police. Another 14% came from the press. Interest group figures made up most of the rest.'"
The three big news events of the past month have arguably been the bombings at the Boston Marathon on April 15, the fertilizer plant explosion in the town of West, Texas on April 17, and the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh on April 24th. Observing the coverage of the three events, we can learn a lot about just how it is that the ideology of the larger culture shapes media coverage of such events. If we look closely, we can also see how the media coverage turns right around and shapes the public understanding of the events, which reinforces the pre-existing ideology and in turn shapes the world in which we live.
Let's start with some basic facts. In the case of the Boston Marathon, two bombs were set off near the finish line of the huge event on April 15th, killing three people and injuring 264, some very seriously.
Two days later, April 17th, a fertilizer plant in the town of West, Texas caught fire and exploded, with the force of a 2.1 magnitude earthquake. At least 14 people were killed, 200 were injured, and some 80 homes were destroyed.
One week after that, "in one of the deadliest industrial accidents ever," a building housing garment factories near Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, collapsed, killing at least 1,100 people and injuring more than 2,500.
Numbers in Context
It always makes me nervous to talk about human suffering in terms of numbers. The loss of a human life is no less tragic if it is the only life lost in an event than it would be if it were one of thousands. Still, when we talk about assigning resources and constructing systems for the purpose of keeping us safe and secure, I think numbers have some meaning. So, here are some numbers, and some other numbers that I hope will give the first set of numbers some meaning.
First, the numbers associated with the Three Big News Events we're talking about here: In the apparent terror attack in Boston, the death toll was three people (arguably four, counting MIT Police Officer Sean Collier, who was killed subsequent to the bombings). In Texas, 14 people were killed. In Bangladesh, more than 1,100 lives were lost.
The news coverage of the three events appears to be inversely proportional to the numbers of deaths. In the two weeks following each event, we find the least coverage for the Bangladesh disaster: 98 newspaper stories turned up by the Lexis/Nexis database of major U.S. newspapers. Texas came next, with 107 stories in the two weeks following the event. There were so many articles about the Boston bombings that Lexis/Nexis simply reported "More than 3,000," beyond which it doesn't count. Again, this is for the two-week period following each event.
In what context can these numbers of killings be placed? Let's start by categorizing them. As this week's "Quote" of the Week put it, "The Boston Bombings were deliberate acts of terror committed by villains targeting the innocent." Both the Texas and Bangladesh disasters, in contrast, do not appear to have been "deliberate" in the same sense, but may be classified as "industrial accidents." So we have two categories: Intentional, targeted killing, and apparently accidental, random deaths. (I use the word "apparently" for reasons I'll get to in a moment.)
Context is needed whenever we consider a "story," since a story can be either help us to understand the nature of the world in which we live, or lead us down the path of illusion. This is particularly true when the media reports on death and destruction. As the FCC report I quote elsewhere in this issue notes, reporting that can help us to understand larger patterns and systems
So, the question to ask when following a story is this: Is this story something that is an expected part of a larger pattern of similar stories? That is, are there "hundreds of private agonies" that we can come to understand better by following this story? Or is this story the exception to the rule? Could it be, in fact, that it is a story in the first place precisely because it is an exception? If a news story helps us to understand the patterns and systems that make our lives better or worse, then it serves a useful function. If it's simply spectacular or shocking, but has little to do with larger patterns, then it's only there to get our attention, and has no usefulness beyond delivering readers to advertisers.
Deaths from Terror
From 2005-2009 a total of 19 people were killed in terrorist incidents within the United States, according to scholar Louis Klarevas at New York University. There were no deaths from terrorist actions in 2011; in 2012 six people were shot in a Sikh temple in an act of domestic terrorism. And three have died so far in 2013. The total number of USAmericans killed by terrorism anywhere in the world in 2011 (the most recent statistics I could find) was 17. All of them were killed in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Israel/Palestine.
The New York Times reported on April 16 that there has been "an overall gradual decline in the number of terrorist attacks since the 1970s..." The Times quoted Gary LaFree, a University of Maryland criminologist and the director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, who noted that "there were about 40 percent more attacks in the United States in the decade before Sept. 11 than in the decade after."
Here I'll quote Tom Chivers, writing in the London Telegraph of April 16: "The absolute risk from dying in a terror attack, for any given person in the West, is minuscule—one probable overestimate put it at one in 1.7 million, about a quarter as likely as being struck by lightning—but the fear of it is disproportionately huge." And, indeed, a TIME/CNN poll taken in late April revealed that 40 percent of respondents are "very" or "somewhat" worried that they or someone in their family will become a victim of terrorism. This is the unavoidable result of an excessive focus on the exceptional/spectacular at the expense of the typical/expected. It also tells us something about the power of media.
Deaths in the Workplace, In the U.S., In the World
When we look at the context for the workplace deaths, we see something quite different. The AFL-CIO issued its annual report on workplace safety on May 7th. The Report—Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect; A National and State-by-State Profile of Worker Safety and Health in the United States—documents both workplace fatalities in the United States for the most recent year for which full statistics are available, and also the incidence of work-related illnesses and injuries.
This year's report tells us that 4,693 workers were killed on the job in the U.S. in 2011, for an average of thirteen workers every day. 137 more workers die each day from occupational diseases—largely from exposures to toxic substances while on the job—which adds an additional 50,000 deaths to the annual work-related death toll. The press release accompanying the report adds that "In 2011, 3.8 million workers across all industries experienced work-related illnesses and injuries. The true toll is estimated to be two to three times greater, but lack of reporting in this area results in lower official figures."
On the global level, the United Nations' International Labour Organization reports that "Every day, 6,300 people die as a result of occupational accidents or work-related diseases—more than 2.3 million deaths per year. 317 million accidents occur on the job annually; many of these resulting in extended absences from work."
So we see that the risk of death or injury from terror is small, while the risk of death or injury in the workplace is much greater. Yet the news of the terror attacks has far outpaced the news of the two industrial "accidents." Why might this be? And what difference does it make? Read on...
Why is it that news of the Boston Marathon bombings received so much more media coverage than the other two incidents featuring the deaths of innocents that occurred basically in the same week? I think there are two reasons. One is a simple one that I call The Gawker Syndrome. As I explained in my recent series "How The Structure of Media Distorts Reality," something is considered newsworthy when it surprises us, or violates a norm, or is otherwise unusual. One reason for the wall-to-wall coverage of the Boston bombings is that such attacks are extremely rare, so they get our attention. It's like a golfing hole-in-one, or a big train wreck. They don't often happen, so when they do happen, people talk about them. And the media plays into that; an editor at a big-city daily once told me "We have to put a 'talker' on the front page to attract readers at the news stand." (Not that we have "news stands" any more, but we get the point.)
That's the simple answer. But there is another, deeper, answer to the question, too, which has to do with definitions and categories.
I have said that the mass media, often unwittingly, fulfills a Propaganda function. One of the main ways that function plays out is by categorizing events. Our brains make sense of things in part by putting any new information that we receive into a category. Consider that the first question we ask when we see something unexpected or unfamiliar is, "What is that?" That question is part of the process of trying to understand the new thing by placing it into a category. One of the jobs that media takes on when reporting on a big event is to tell us into which category we should place the event.
But another job of the media—one not often noticed by news consumers—is to limit the list of possible categories from which to choose. And this latter job is the one that often puts the media into the Propaganda business. I'll explain using the Three Big News Events of the past month that are the subjects of this issue of Nygaard Notes: The Boston bombings, the Texas fertilizer explosion, and the Bangladesh factory collapse. Boston; Texas; Bangladesh.
When the first question—What is it?—was asked in regard to the three events, the media offered us two choices of categories: 1. Crime, 2. Accident. And the answers offered so far place the events into the categories as follows: Boston was a crime; Texas was an Accident; Bangladesh, we're not sure, it was kind-of an Accident, and kind-of a Crime. The alleged perpetrators in Boston have been arrested (or killed). No one in Texas has been arrested. The owner of the factory complex in Bangladesh has been arrested. (For those prone to nit-picking: A paramedic in West, Texas has been arrested for possessing "components of a pipe bomb." This development may or may not place this story into a different category, we'll see.)
By "settling" things in terms of these categories, we think we know what to do. If it's a Crime, we identify and "bring justice" to the perpetrators. If it's an Accident, we clean up and move on.
The job of a news organization is to attract as many readers or viewers as possible. Crime attracts more readers than Accidents, so we get more news about crimes than we do about Accidents. And this has real consequences, as we'll see in a moment. But why does Crime sell? Because people like to have someone to blame, and if the culprit is easily identifiable by the majority culture as being an "other," all the better. That's why the Boston Marathon story gets more coverage than the other two disasters, despite the fact that industrial accidents are far more of a threat to the average person than terrorist incidents. We can "do something" when there is a culprit to apprehend and punish. But Accidents just happen—don't they?—and what, after all, can we do about luck? Here's where public safety would be greatly enhanced if we could introduce another category to the list of possible categories, a category into which all three of the recent tragedies could be placed. And that is the category of System Failure.
By reporting disproportionately on unusual events that appear to be "Crimes," and neglecting the usual events that also cause death and suffering, the media does more damage than convincing 40 percent of us that we are in danger of being victimized by terrorists. We also skew our systems toward small threats and away from larger threats.
Keeping Ourselves Safe
I've already spelled out the gaping difference in risk from terror attacks and industrial accidents. But it's worth looking at what our misplaced fear of the former, and neglect of the latter, has brought us in terms of public safety measures. A glance at two federal agencies tells a story.
The federal agency charged with "Guarding against terrorism" is the Department of Homeland Security. Their workforce consists of nearly 240,000 workers, mainly guarding against "threats to the homeland" from outside of our borders (a certain number are charged with "responding to natural disasters.")
Meanwhile, the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 "was passed to prevent workers from being killed or seriously harmed at work," and the agency charged with implementing this law is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA. Their workforce consists of 2,335 workers, according to the AFL-CIO report I mentioned earlier.
Remember that, on average, approximately 5 people die in the United States each year as a result of what could be called terrorist attacks. Deaths as a result of workplace accidents or occupational disease number something over 54,000 per year.
Forgive the grisly arithmetic, but what we see here is that, on the official, federal level, we have decided to employ roughly 12,000 security workers for every USAmerican killed in a given year by terror attack. And we have decided to employ one health and safety inspector for every 23 people whose deaths occur as a result of doing their jobs. That equals—absurdly—four one-hundredths of one inspector for each worker who dies in the workplace.
It is sometimes argued that the large expenditures for Homeland Security are the reason that there are so few fatalities. I don't know if that's true or not, but to the degree that it is true it makes my point: Risk is reduced when more resources are devoting to reducing risk.
Readers may recall The Upper Big Branch Mine disaster from April of 2010, in which an explosion in a Massey Energy coal mine killed twenty-nine out of thirty-one miners at the site in West Virginia. Widely reported as an Accident, a sign seen on a road leading to the mine indicates that at least some people in the area understand the difference between a simple Accident and a System Failure. The sign, reported in the official Report to the Governor of West Virginia, reads: "Accidents are caused; they don't just happen."
The important point here is that many of the biggest risks to our health and safety—our "security," if you will—don't involve specific culprits. At the same time, they're not really "accidents," either, as the sign-makers in West Virginia so succinctly remind us.
When something bad happens, we want it to be either a Crime or an Accident, because in each case we can fairly easily absolve ourselves of responsibility. An accident, after all, is just bad luck, and crimes are committed by criminals, and those criminals are not us.
So we dismiss, or quickly forget, the accidents that filled the front pages yesterday, and focus instead on looking for the culprits who may threaten us tomorrow. And the systems that produce the most human suffering remain largely unchanged.
Back in 2006, during the July War between Hezbollah and Israel in which over 1,000 people were killed, I wrote about how the conflict was reported in the U.S. press. I quoted Columbia University Professor Rashid Khalidi, who said that "no good can come from focusing exclusively on recent events rather than on the underlying problems." And so it is with any disaster, any war.
In the case of terror attacks, such a change would mean that we would know less about the Tsarnaev brothers and what makes them tick, and more about the social, economic, political, military and other forces that give rise to the phenomenon of terror in the first place. In the case of the fertilizer plant explosion or the garment factory collapse, it would mean that we would lose the luxury of shrugging off the events as being due to "luck," and begin to acknowledge the part that each of us plays in producing the conditions that lead to such "accidents." We would have to look at the patterns and systems that create the conditions in which accidents happen, including consumption patterns, regulatory patterns, power relations, and other systems in which we all play a part.
It's much easier to separate ourselves from events by blaming cosmic fate or looking for an "other" to blame. But as long as we are looking for culprits—which is the norm in an individualistic culture and the media that arises in it—we will be diverted from analyzing the systems that give rise to human suffering. And our "national security" will continue to deteriorate even as we funnel more trillions into trying to keep ourselves safe.
The news of the factory collapse in Bangladesh has offered the media an opportunity to help people to see the role of systems in causing all of this suffering. The media, for the most part, has not taken advantage of the opportunity.
An excellent story filed on May 1st by Associated Press reporter Anne D'Innocenzio, for example, was completely ignored by the nation's newspapers. She noted that "Last week's building collapse in Bangladesh that killed hundreds of clothing factory workers put a spotlight on the sobering fact that people in poor countries often risk their lives working in unsafe factories to make the cheap T-shirts and underwear that Westerners covet."
"The disaster," notes D'Innocenzio, "which comes after a fire in another Bangladesh factory killed 112 people last November, also highlights something just as troubling for socially conscious shoppers: It's nearly impossible to make sure the clothes you buy come from factories with safe working conditions."
The AP story notes that "ethically made" clothing, or clothing that is made in factories that maintain safe working conditions, makes up "a tiny fraction of 1 percent of the overall $1 trillion global fashion industry" and "most aren't national brands."
D'Innocenzio quotes a retail consultant who says, "For the consumer, it's virtually impossible to know whether the product was manufactured in safe conditions." She adds that "some experts say that retailers have little incentive to be more proactive and do more because the public isn't pushing them to do so." Polls of U.S. consumers appear to support this claim. One pollster told D'Innocenzio that shoppers in the United States "seem more concerned with fit and price than whether their clothes were made in factories where workers are safe and make reasonable wages."
What we see here is systems within systems within systems. The garment industry is a system within the larger economic system. In the larger economic system, workers are being squeezed more and more each year, forcing retail systems and the families who patronize them to increasing prioritize cheap prices over almost anything, including ethical sourcing. Feeding into all of this is a media system that rarely reports on the ethical options that do exist, few as they may be. And there are all sorts of tax systems, regulatory systems, educational systems, and trade systems that implicitly or explicitly endorse the exploitation of (usually) invisible workers in service to maintaining a profitable market in textiles.
Speaking of ethical clothing options, an Associated Press story that went out over the Business Wires the day before the one I just mentioned listed some of the current options. That story, headlined "A Look at Resources for 'Ethical' Fashions," again was completely ignored by the nation's newspapers. (And the placement of the word "ethical" in quotation marks gives a hint of the reluctance of "the market" to include such concepts in its thinking.)
I'll reprint here the short AP story (including quotation marks), and add a few resources of my own, for those who want to consider ethics in their clothing purchases.
The AP wrote:
"Fair Trade U.S.A.: The nonprofit was founded in 1998 to audit products to make sure workers overseas are paid fair wages and work in safe conditions, and it's hoping to appeal to shoppers who care about where their clothing is made. In 2010, it expanded the list of products that it certifies beyond coffee, sugar and spices to include clothing. Check out its website to find fashions and partners such as PrAna, a yoga-inspired clothing line.
"Green America: A nonprofit organization that helps shoppers find eco-friendly and ethically produced merchandise, including clothing. The website includes a 'Green Business Network' that is a directory of socially and environmentally responsible businesses in the country. The group published a guide last year on how to buy eco-friendly and 'ethically produced' clothing.
"Labor 411.org: The site describes itself as the one-stop resource for buying union-made goods and services. The site lists a range of products including clothing like athletic wear that are made by unionized workers in the U.S.
"Search the web. Search online for 'ethically produced' clothing or 'Fair Trade' clothing to find companies like Fair Indigo, which sells Fair Trade certified fashions online. There are also organizations like Global Mamas, (Globalmamas.org) a nonprofit group that works with women-owned businesses in Ghana to produce organic cotton clothing. It lets customers email their seamstresses directly from its website. Customers can buy the Global Mama branded products through a related link called Trade for Change."
That's all from the AP. Here are my additions:
The International Labor Rights Forum has a "Creating a Sweatshop Free World" campaign that "seeks to challenge sweatshop conditions globally, and promote ethical alternatives to sweatshop-produced goods."
The Worker Rights Consortium was initiated by college students in the year 2000, and the anti-sweatshop group is still going strong.
The Asia Floor Wage project started in India a few years ago, but it's much bigger than that now.