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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

How media can help (and hurt) our awareness of struggles outside our direct experience

Anita Varma, PhD

Markus Spiske / Unsplash

Anita Varma, PhD (@anitawrites) is the assistant director of Journalism & Media Ethics as well as Social Sector Ethics. Views are her own.

For many people, the past 11 months have brought their local surroundings into sharp and primary focus. Neighborhood needs, local grocery stores, and county-level COVID-19 precautions and restrictions are top of mind. In the wake of an airborne virus filling hospitals, the chief concern for many people is what is happening in their immediate vicinity with respect to risks, community spread, and mitigation. 

At the same time, though, there is plenty happening across the country and world that demands attention and is not immediately local. Farmers protesting in India, cyclones in Central America prompting a new caravan of people traveling to the U.S. border to seek work, and a military coup in Myanmar are just a few examples. Within the U.S., teachers in some cities are pushing back against proposed returns to classrooms without vaccines and safety measures.  

None of these issues may affect your day-to-day life. You might not know anyone in India, might not be concerned about cyclones or immigration, and might have too much going on to stay updated about Myanmar. Your own school district might be back in-person with teachers already vaccinated.

Ethics asks something more of each of us, though: it calls for us to care about the suffering and struggle of people outside our realm of immediate experience. Withdrawing into local cocoons may seem understandable and in some cases necessary to get by in the pandemic—almost everyone is overwhelmed, after all. Yet as we’ve seen in past humanitarian crises dating back to World War II and, more recently, the Syrian refugee crisis, even if turning away is possible and arguably pragmatic, it quickly becomes a morally shaky position in the face of people dying due to conditions not of their own choosing.

The good news is that news outlets continue to cover issues outside of a narrowly-defined local scope. Even in a moment of many closed borders, we still have mediated access to some of the issues affecting faraway places. The less-good news is that social media platforms are increasingly large-scale news distribution systems people rely upon, and often amplify popular, frivolous, click-generating stories over publicly important ones.

Rihanna recently attracted tremendous attention, support, and ire when she tweeted a CNN story about the protests in India and the question “why aren’t we talking about this?! #FarmersProtest” Her question and the range of reactions to it suggest we take a moment to reflect on what we are and aren’t talking about—and who “we” means.

And then, if we find ourselves uneasy or uncomfortable with our answers, we might begin to step outside of our readily accessible trending topics tabs to seek out the perspectives of people directly affected who are already speaking to journalists, shouting for change, and pleading for more of us to listen.

Feb 10, 2021

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