April 29, 2015

How Our Scripts Lead to Apathy

Baltimore Light Rail outside Camden Yards
Baltimore Light Rail outside Camden Yards (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Have you ever had the experience of watching a new episode of a TV show and having the strong feeling that you have seen it before? No, I'm not talking about your "sixth sense" or anything as silly as that. I don't mean that you've actually seen that particular episode before (it is new, remember); I mean that it feels so incredibly derivative that the story line was likely borrowed from another show you previously watched. It doesn't have to rise to the level of plagiarism for you to feel like you are watching something familiar. If you watch a lot of sitcoms, I'm sure you can relate. In my experience, they tend to recycle story lines fairly often.

If you are anything like me, you do not find this terribly appealing. Unless you are already invested in the newer show or it manages to put some sort of clever spin on the old story line, you probably find it less enjoyable once you recognize how derivative it is. You might even find yourself feeling bored and changing the channel.

The question I'd like to consider for this post is whether we have similar reactions to important news stories when the manner in which they are presented and/or how the public reacts to them becomes so highly scripted that we feel like we've seen it all before. I think such scripts are far more common when it comes to the news than we see for entertainment media. I also think that there is a significant downside in that the prevalence of such scripts fuels apathy and maintains the status quo.

When news broke of the protests in Baltimore, I immediately recognized the script. It was hard to miss because it had just happened in Ferguson. Fox News and MSNBC both provided their take, using the events as an opportunity to promote their respective ideologies. Each network brought on assorted "experts" to support their particular narrative, telling their audiences the same things we had just heard during Ferguson. Drudge and Breitbart vs. Salon and Raw Story provided more of the same.

None of this is unique to the all-too-common incidents involving White police officers killing unarmed Black men, although such incidents might provide us with one of the clearest examples of how scripted the coverage gets. We can observe the same thing with mass shootings, celebrities saying things some find offensive, U.S. presidential elections, and many other events. The scripts are especially likely to come out for tragic events though. From tragedy to tragedy, the ideologically-driven talking points are largely the same.

Unfortunately, the manner in which the news media relies on scripted coverage like this is only part of the problem. And when we reflect on media consolidation and corporate ownership, it should not come as a surprise that we see events being massaged to promote particular ideologies. I'm not saying they are blameless here; I'm saying that they are doing what we should expect them to do given their ownership.

The other part of the problem - the much larger part of the problem in my opinion but also the one we might be able to do something to fix - is us. Spend a few minutes on Twitter or Facebook shortly after another one of these incidents has happened, and you will see exactly the same content you saw during the last one, the one before that, and so on. Our reactions are even more scripted than the media coverage. School shooting? Guns should be outlawed or the teachers should all be armed! White police killing another unarmed Black civilian? Riots are perfectly justified and you'd be doing it too if you were in their situation or declare martial law and stop the "race riots!" It is just the same damn thing over and over.

And how do people respond to all of this? Some become increasingly polarized, tribalistic, and hateful towards those they have come to label enemies. Others descend into apathy. Neither of these are positive outcomes. I'll continue to address the polarization, tribalism, and hate. But for now, I'd like to consider the apathy and how we tend to tune out when we are bombarded with the same scripts over and over while feeling powerless to bring about any sort of meaningful change. I see this as a predictable and perhaps even healthy response when we recognize the monotony of the scripts we see. The point is that the scripts aren't working.

If we really want to inspire change, we have got to figure out a way to set the ideologically-driven talking points aside and begin thinking for ourselves. And then, we need to rediscover how to communicate with others rather than just throwing outrage into the void and hoping that something will eventually stick. Yes, it is much easier to keep retweeting the same tired meme over and over, but doing so might be making the problem worse by pushing more toward apathy.

I do not feel good about the fact that my initial reaction to the news out of Baltimore was, "Here we go again," quickly followed by a desire to tune out and steer clear of all social media for a few days. It took me approximately 15 minutes of watching the television news and another 20 minutes on Twitter to realize why I was having this reaction. The script is too familiar. Even some of the hashtags are the same. Hearing the same things over and over again are not inspiring me to do anything; they are pushing me to tune out.

Scripts are appealing. They are easy, comfortable, and give us the sense of doing something without actually expending any real effort (kind of like prayer). If that was their downside and nothing more, they would not be worth addressing. But I suspect that they come at a steeper cost and that increased apathy is a part of that cost.
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