Tuesday, February 28, 2012

UPI Exploits Death Again - This Time it's a Little Girl

I’m quick to grow painfully tired of media buzzwords. Their overuse tends to strip them of all legitimate meaning. It takes a small-scale breaking point for the public to realize this in individual cases, but it will take a major breaking point for the media to recognize the counterproductive effects of their attention-seeking repetition.

I’ve noticed this recently with the word “bullying.” Frequently, when there are stories about children or teenagers who were victims of violence, harassment, or suicide, or who were subject to practically any interactions on the internet, the news media leverages in some sort of comment about bullying, seemingly in an effort to give unifying context to virtually every such story. That wouldn’t be objectionable, but it seems to me that “bullying” is a descriptive term that we apply to a situation only after we’ve identified it as such. If a child is being systematically harassed by a person or group of people, we say that he’s being bullied because that’s simply what the word means.

But that’s not the way the media uses it. Instead, they tend to talk about bullying like it is some kind of disease, which has a very specific set of symptoms and can be identified at any stage in its life cycle by a trained professional. Indeed, the disease corollary may be quite intentional, designed to make modern bullying seem less like an ordinary phenomenon and more like an epidemic, and thus something about which to feel a certain sense of panic. Applying it as a buzzword reframes bullying so that it’s no longer a term that concisely identifies a set of similar situations; instead it is the situation.

Never has the manipulative use of the term been clearer than in the UPI news brief about the death of ten year-old Joanna Ramos after a fight at a Southern California elementary school. The article summarizes the story in a few brief paragraphs, explaining that she and another girl had fought, that she suffered blunt force trauma that resulted in a blood clot in her brain, that her death has been ruled a homicide and that prosecutors have yet to determine whether charges will be filed. Then, after all the details of the actual case have been conclusively stated, UPI adds this as a concluding sentence: “There have been no allegations that Ramos was being bullied, KTLA reported Friday.”

If there have been no such allegations, then why on Earth is that relevant to the tragic story of a young girl being killed? Does her being or not being bullied affect the seriousness of the loss? Does it make her any more or less dead? Does it make the girl with whom she fought any more or less guilty of manslaughter? The only reason there ever could be for pointing out the absence of a particular charge or connection is if that piece of information would have been relevant. In this case, it just isn’t. It might have mattered, for the sake of complete coverage, if the girl was being bullied, but there’s no need to specifically dispel that possibility every time a child is killed. To do so is to suggest that bullying is typically a precursor to death among children and that the absence of bullying in this case is anomalous and therefore noteworthy.

Again, I’m sure that’s intentional. Actual relevance is the only legitimate reason for addressing the absence of allegations, but the media has reasons for that behavior that aren’t legitimate. If it’s a chance to leverage in a buzzword that they think their audience is expecting, that’s evidently good enough for them.

Bullying is a problem. It’s always been a problem. Using it as this catchall term in the media, though, cheapens that problem. It broadens awareness of the issue to the point of obfuscating recognition of actual instances of it. Isolated acts of violence constitute their own problem. And using a girl’s death from such an act in order to push your narrow media narrative is cheap, tactless and unethical. But considering that UPI is the same outlet that exploited Andrew Embiricos’ death back in December, cheap, tactless and unethical is evidently par for the course for them. They don’t set the overall media narratives, though. Everybody’s culpable for that.

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