We immerse ourselves in the stories we hear in the news. We become a part of them. They play out like an engrossing movie or riveting novel. And because of this we have stepped into a dual role of consumer and producer of the news and entertainment we want to see. To this effect, we have also become ignorant consumers of the truth, dictating what we want our version of it to be. We have become the creators of our own reality, however untrue it may really be.
The question begs to be asked, with all the access to information and media that we have at our disposal, are we really more informed about the issues we face? One hot political debate for years now has been the issue of global warming and how to counteract it. Almost overnight, with the help of “An Inconvenient Truth”, a sensational film by former Vice President Al Gore, the global warming issue climbed to the forefront of political discussion. It paved the way for an entire “green” movement in the country. Soon, signs, billboards and advertisements told us to “Go Green” and so the race was on to develop cleaner burning fuel for our cars, cut back on our greedy energy consumption and become a more environmentally friendly society. We took the issue at face value. Nobody seemed to dispute it, and those who did we certainly didn’t hear about it; not from the media anyway. However, according to NOAA and NASA data, the Earth's average surface temperature has increased by about 1.2 to 1.4ºF in the last 100 years (www.epa.gov). This may be an issue, but a 1.2 to 1.4 degree temperature increase over a 100 year span is hardly one that requires the immediate resolution we think it does, particularly given the fact that other issues held a higher precedence in the near-term such as the war in Iraq, the state of the economy, the security of our nation and several other issues.
So why was the issue of global warming so exaggerated? Because the media chose to exacerbate it. More specifically, we chose to make it worse through our consumption of the media surrounding the issue. What’s the remedy to a boring life? It’s entertainment of course, and what better form of entertainment than to put ourselves in the middle of a crisis. With global warming, we had our heroes, the knights in shining armor known as politicians and scientists, to rescue us from the dragon’s fiery breath – literally global warming. And we had our damsels in distress, the American public, who secretly want and need to be rescued from something, always crying out to a savior, “Help me!” Meanwhile, the story’s narrator, the media, painted the picture just how we wanted to see it because they knew we’d buy it.
So in this sense, we are not passive consumers of media, but very active ones. We determine what we read in the newspapers and see on television because we buy it. It’s what we want and the media knows it. We don’t question what’s on the news because we desire to hear it. The media is a business just like any other, out for profit and always trying to market and sell their product. In his song “Waiting on the World to Change” John Mayer says,
“And when you trust your television
What you get is what you got
‘Cause when they own the information
They can bend it all they want.”
And the truth is, they’re going to bend it until the supply meets the demand.
In the case of Terri Schiavo, we watched another drama unfold. This case was not exclusive in that Terri Schiavo was the only person to be in this Persistent Vegetative State (PVS) and not the only case in which a decision was made whether or not to discontinue life support for a person. So why was this case such a national headline for many years? It could clearly be painted as a portrait of good versus evil and the media had their villain in Michael Schiavo, Terri’s husband. After all, he was the one that had petitioned for the discontinuation of her feeding tube which kept her nourished and alive. Terri’s parents argued that she was conscious and that her eyes could even follow a birthday balloon as it floated across the room. The media played the story out, and so the stage was set. They had cast Michael Schiavo as the villain in a struggle against Terri’s parents for her very life. And as the villain was winning the fight, in stepped the hero, America’s politicians and activists to pass legislation to replace her feeding tube that had already been removed. Legislation came too late and the heroes couldn’t save her this time. We all watched in horror as Terri passed away March 18, 2005 due to effects of dehydration. The public was outraged and appalled at Michael Schiavo’s diligence in insisting his wife’s death.
The side of the story the media didn’t tell was that of Michael Schiavo. He was a devoted husband that despite his wife’s PVS, refused to divorce her. This same man the media portrayed as a villain even earned a license in nursing to aid his wife while hospitalized. Oftentimes he was unemployed in order to care for his wife. They never told the side of the story in which Michael and Terri had previously discussed this same situation and that her wishes were to not be resuscitated and to let her die if she ever fell into PVS as she did. This was the Michael Schiavo the media forgot to mention. Can we really blame them though? After all that isn’t how we wanted to see him, it didn’t fit the story the American public wanted to hear. We needed a villain for the archetypal good versus evil story, so they gave us Michael and in some morbid way we were satisfied.
Unfortunately, Americans have created a society that trusts what we are given. This country was founded on challenging questionable norms and creating a society based on the principles of truth. However, we have become more complacent and reliant on the assumption that what the media produces is the truth. Truth, in our case, is really a relevant term in that we refuse to believe anything other than what we want to hear. Certainly the truth we want to hear is not the full truth, but borne of ignorance and an apathetic attitude towards finding the real facts and hearing all sides of the story. The media only perpetuates the version of the truth we want. We get what we ask for. We’re painfully ignorant that our consumption of the media is exactly the reason the exaggerated version of reality we get from our news is given to us like a story we tell our children at night.