Though I rarely read or watch the news when we’re at home, when we’re in foreign countries, I like to read newspapers because it interests me to see how different cultures skew reality to meet the needs of their citizens. It’s shocking to see the differences in how journalists write and present the news. In Mexico, graphic photographs of mutilated police officers, motorcycle accident victims, and decapitated bodies grace the pages of every issue of every newspaper. In India, the news is appalling, but presented non-chalantly in a higher form of English than what we use in the United States. Indian stories make my jaw drop but are presented irreverently. In the UK, news reports about seemingly small incidents were given a lot more airtime and dialogue than what they’d get in a big country like the United States. This is what interests me about news. It can be altered to fit the needs of the audience, thereby altering the collective reality of all who subscribe to it.
When we were in India, ISIS made a terrorist threat against the country as a whole. We watched the news about it from our hotel room in Varanasi. Ebola made headlines. I read stories about it online and in newspapers. India by itself, without terrorist threats and Ebola epidemics pushed my threshold in so many ways that I found myself completely preoccupied with fear as the date of our United Airlines flight to go home drew nearer. Every day I checked the news feeds about Ebola and then I checked news feeds about ISIS. I read the Indian newspapers, which (believe me) did not in any way quell my fears about what could happen to us. I couldn’t get my fear under control. I thought about terrorism and Ebola all the time.
I knew quite a bit about Ebola already. As long as it didn’t make its way to India by the time we went home and become an epidemic there, we’d be okay. But terrorism was something I knew less about. I mean, my mind had been thoroughly corrupted by plenty of false information from news reports that I’d seen or heard by accident but I’d never really read or heard anything that hadn’t been tainted with sensationalism. So I downloaded a book about the psychology of terrorism and terrorists and I learned something about it… namely that terrorism is scary. That’s the whole idea behind it. It’s supposed to be scary. What makes it so terrifying is the media coverage that hypes terrorism. Without the media, no one would really know about terrorist groups because bad stuff goes down all the time, everywhere in the world. Terrorism feeds off the media and the media feeds off of terrorism. Before mass media, “terrorism” didn’t even exist. It’s a two-headed beast.
I learned some other things too about terrorism and terrorists, but the most important thing that I carried away from my reading was the idea that terrorism generally affects small, isolated groups of people. There are exceptions to this rule, of course, like the 9/11 flights that killed hundreds at a time, but mostly, a bomb or a shooting is likely to affect just a few people in an isolated area. It could affect me. It could affect you. It could affect someone down the street or in another city. In that regard, terrorism is not unlike other random events resulting in multiple deaths; like landslides, earthquakes, or tsunamis. Last year, there was a tornado near the Denver International Airport. That’s scary too, but harder to sensationalize in a way that grips the public’s attention for more than a day. Terrorism gets a lot of attention because attacks are often audacious and they come pre-packaged with sensationalism geared specifically for media coverage (like decapitating a man on video for all the world to watch).
On the other hand, I believe that Ebola deserves a lot more attention in the media than it’s getting. I’m glad to see that the disease coverage is abating because that means that there are fewer cases of Ebola in places where you wouldn’t expect for them to pop up. But the people in West Africa are really suffering. And there are doctors and health care workers who are sacrificing their lives to help all of us. Isn’t all that suffering and sacrificing newsworthy stuff? I’ve seen posts on Facebook indicating that some people in the United States don’t even believe the Ebola epidemic in West Africa is a real thing because of media portrayals of the topic. But Ebola is real and it’s always been a concern for travelers and locals in the Congo region of Africa. Ebola deserves more attention and should be covered more carefully to educate people about it, but alas, information like this that would unravel mysteries and reveal the unknown which simply doesn’t sell as well as fear.
This is one of the main benefits of travel or really any activity that goes beyond the normal routine of day-to-day life. If you want to know what’s “real” and what’s hype, you can go see for yourself. It’s hard to tell the difference between sensationalism and reality when you haven’t seen the world or experienced it with your own senses. Looking through the lens offered by the media will always make the world look like a scary, awful place because people tune in to feel fearful. Sometimes, in fact, I think people tune into the news just to feel anything at all.
The United States looks like a place stricken with civil war right now. The media lens has focused its glare at the Ferguson, Missouri riots and when we watch the world news reports, the U.S. appears to be completely unsafe. We know better only because we’ve been there. We’ve lived there. But we’ve talked with people in other countries about their perception of the United States. Some people see the U.S. as a sort of “heaven”. But the U.S. scares a lot of travelers who see it as a violent place where even kids are killing other kids in public schools and the public sees nothing wrong with this.
It’s important to realize that when it comes to news and the media, what sells is fear. News reports give easy information. Information that’s been pre-chewed, salted, and heavily seasoned. Fear is almost always about the unknown which is why news reports never give the whole story. Half-a-story sells better than a whole one.
It’s possible for me to stand next to an Ebola-exposed West African along with a priest and several nuns, two pickpockets, and a terrorist in a long line at the airport in Rome. But will anything bad happen to me? It’s hard to say. It depends on where the line is leading, the time of the day when my flight leaves, whether the sick person is contagious, and whether my pocketbook is exposed at just the right moment. If something bad happens to me, it makes the news. If nothing happens, I pass through Rome like a ghost. News reporters only cover the story about the guy who got on the plane with the terrorist or the Ebola patient; the person who died or fell ill. All the people who passed through Rome invisibly never make the news.
Life is always about playing the odds. Most of us bet on familiarity and routine rather than living on the edge. We live like ghosts, passing through our lives like dust on the wind. But I believe we’re always on the edge and we’re not meant to live our lives so dispassionately and with so much fear. We dabble in our delusion of routine all day long and then take a nightly news break to remind us that Armageddon is on the horizon. The routine helps us believe that we’re completely safe. The news reminds us that there’s still a juicy uncertainty to our lives.
If I stand in line with the Ebola-stricken and the terrorists in Rome, I may not suffer negative repercussions for it depending on a number of variables. But if I watch the news at night, it will appear as though everyone standing in any line at any airport in the world is at risk of dying a tragic, premature death. By staying home and watching the news, I get to congratulate myself for not standing in lines. But I’ll never get to know what it smells like in the medina in Fez, what it feels like to coast down the Amazon River in a primitive wooden boat, or how a sirocco wind feels in Venice. Instead, I fall prey to advertising on news channels selling me products like McDonald’s hamburgers or spray cheese that may very well kill me from the comfort of my own home.
The lady at Safeway who gave us our flu shots was fully informed about the Ebola epidemic as a result of the nightly news. She said, “Well, you’re not going to Africa are you?”
“Well yes,” I said as she pressed cotton against my arm. “Actually we are.” I explained that we were going to Northern Africa and I could tell that to her Africa was Africa and we were very silly to be concerned about getting the flu. This, of course, made me wonder about the wisdom of going to Africa during an Ebola epidemic so I said, “There are fewer cases of Ebola in Tunisia and Egypt right now than there are in the U.S…”
Then we talked about the stupidity of the Dallas nurse who traveled on a domestic flight all over hell exposing hundreds of new victims to the disease.
That made me feel better in some respects and worse in others.
There was silence in the small room as she gathered up her supplies and checked my band-aid. I didn’t know what else to say in defense of my trip.
At the very least, I remembered that if death is coming for you, it can find you anywhere, and if you’re supposed to live, even Ebola won’t kill you.