The United Nations human rights office released a report last August claiming that 191,000 people had died in the Syrian civil war that began in March 2011. In 2012, the Center for Disease Control reported 40,600 suicides in the United States alone. In 2013, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that 10,076 people died in drunken driving related accidents that year.
These statistics alone represent 241,676 unfinished stories, 241,676 incomplete families, 241,676 lost opportunities. More than anything else, however, these statistics represent real human beings. Although these numbers represent unrelated incidences, each one demonstrates the prevalence of violence and soaring mortality rates around the world today.
It’s difficult to consider the impact of numbers like these. Relative to the news we read every day, from international conflicts to global terrorism, the aforementioned statistics tend to blend into the rest of the floating numbers in our head, tucked between our locker combinations and home telephone numbers. Our connected society has effectively desensitized our reaction to death, overshadowing the significance of the sanctity of human life.
In the 1960s, Americans used to crowd around their small televisions to absorb coverage of the Vietnam War. It was a breakthrough in American journalism as citizens watched the horrors of the war unfold on the screens in front of their eyes. It gave a face to the atrocities that the news was trying to convey.
It gave an identity to the numbers. It reminded Americans that our friends, families and neighbors were dying by the hundreds of thousands. America stopped, watched and considered the human effect of these disasters.
However, since then, news sources tend to cling to disaster porn stories — using shocking death tolls to sell papers. Instead of reading news for the sake of understanding the world, we live for the next major headline to read, “Thousands killed in another attack.” I am not claiming that people are seeking out disasters; rather, people only choose to care when the disaster seems “large enough.”
Moreover, Americans specifically only tend to care about what is happening to other Americans. Did you know that Boko Haram (an Islamist extremist group) has displaced more than one million people in Africa according to the International Organization for Migration? Probably not, because in 2014, we spent weeks of our news cycle focused on the Americans suffering from Ebola.
I do not mean to stratify the importance of any deaths that have occurred in the past years, but I do believe the priorities of the typical American newsreader are a bit out of whack. We read the news like a soap opera, rarely taking into consideration the true impact of a person losing their life. Obituaries and human-interest stories fall to the wayside in favor of giant headlines about American disease outbreaks and “disastrous storms” in the northeast.
Don’t get me wrong — these stories are important, but there are major ethical problems with focusing the news on ethnocentric disaster headlines. Can we blame them though? The ways we respond to news correlate directly with the way newspapers are written; that is how they sell papers after all.
Ultimately, this trend was born as a result of our growing obsession with social media. News sources are forced to come up with the most intense news story that will guide clicks to their sites. This trend may never be stopped completely, but we can still be agents of change on a micro level.
It is important for us to have discussions about human rights that delve far deeper than “it’s bad that people are dying.” As critical readers, we should have discussions about the impact of terrible events on cultures and communities. Take the time to consider what it means when 1,000 or even just one person dies. Put yourself in the mentality that all life is valuable, regardless of race, age, geographical location or circumstances of death.
By changing our own mindsets about how we deal with tragedies, we are in essence becoming the change we hope to see in the world. We may only begin to combat this destructive mindset when we consider the effect of words and the human cost behind them.
It is hard to definitively say that this time in history is more terrible than any other time, but it sure feels that way. Every morning, another tragedy brings communities around the world to their knees. Instead of relying on the tweets and posts of your friends to explain what happened, take the time to research the situation yourself. Understand the tragedy and consider the effect it has in our world today.
If we begin to look at the world through a new lens, only then can we begin to reimagine its future. 241,676 people. 241,676 sons, daughters, brothers and sisters. Take a moment to think about that. It might just help you realize how fortunate you are.
Daniel Coffey studies journalism. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @TheSagebrush.