Columns

Sundlee ’16: Choose your news wisely

By
Opinions Columnist

Bees in the honey! No doorknobs! Undrinkable water! Horrors! The Twittersphere and other media outlets have been erupting lately with reports from journalists regarding the conditions in Sochi. Olympic commentary leading up to the opening ceremony was dominated by strident complaints of horrific and icky hotels that were left unfinished as guests began to arrive.

Should this be what fills our newsfeeds? Apart from their disdainful and malicious tone, mockeries like this obfuscate crucial information that needs to be spread. Ethnic strife, human rights violations, corruption and environmental hazards are rampant in Russia. Instead of paying attention to these ongoings, people are devoting broadcasts and articles to frivolities that do little to contribute to the public’s comprehension of what’s happening in the region.

This is part of the insidiousness of the information age. Hyperbole is rampant. Initial tweets go viral and innocent observations escalate until you’re sure the world is ending. Buzzfeed recently published an article titled “Photographic proof that Sochi is a Godforsaken hellscape right now.” The post highlights all the inconveniences experienced by journalists since arriving and has over four million views. This type of reporting, while funny, provides an incredibly superficial and myopic perspective on events that are far too grave to be ignored. Why read about Putin’s attempts to revert Russia to an autocracy when you can just snicker at pictures of him shirtless with wild animals?

In modern journalism, there is suffocating pressure on journalists to come up with witty updates to please and recruit followers. Because anyone can report the news, there is unlimited competition for attention. This means appealing to lower denominators through snarkiness and sarcasm. Every post needs to be easily consumable and inviting. Who wants to read depressing longform about atrocious human rights abuses when you can just laugh at how backward and unprepared Russia is? It’s so much easier to gloss over nastier news when there is something light and funny to read instead. It’s so much easier to slip into denial.

We cannot afford to let this happen with Sochi. According to Brett Forest of National Geographic, “The Olympics have become a prism through which Russia amplifies its message to the world, while downplaying the assaults on humanity, the environment and the law.” It’s safe to assume that the success of the games is directly tied to Putin and the image that he has control over the Northern Caucasus. He chose this location precisely to demonstrate the impotency of the separatist movements in the region, when in fact the Caucasus is plagued by terror attacks. His hold on this mountainous, wild region is tenuous to say the least, but he still means to present the contrary to the international community. To maintain the facade that everything is swell, he placed gag orders on all Russian national journalists. Due to these restrictions, it is all the more essential that international journalists, who have more freedom, shed light on these situations.

Instead of coming up with derisive quips about the toilet paper, perhaps they should tweet about the labor abuses that occurred during construction of the hotels. Or the forced relocation of Sochi residents without fair compensation. Or the discriminatory anti-gay legislation. Or the destroyed local drinking wells. Or the International Olympic Committee’s dicey record with human rights in general.

Sochi deserves flak, but it deserves it for so many more reasons than the shoddy tourist venues. It is important that the global community understand the deeper context of what is happening in the region and the rest of Russia. This means receiving news beyond games updates and goofy Tweets from attendees.

Modern media, with its constant information flow, invites a sort of triviality that is entertaining, light and happily distracting. There can be value in this type of communication. It’s a cultural link and creator of social norms that significantly influence how we interact. It’s a method of social organization as well, though more often than not its galvanizing powers are limited. Occasionally, stories have surfaced on the mass popular media sites like Buzzfeed or Reddit that are not watered-down, overstated news, but rather important and informative updates on the world. There is a happy medium to be found where we can have our Internet inanities while still being sentient of realities. We just need to ensure that we don’t allow fluff to obscure substance.

The line between hard news and social media is blurring rapidly. With our increasing interconnectedness, we control what we see and what we pay attention to. It is up to us to determine what is imperative for others to know, because we have the power of bringing messages to everyone else’s attention right at our fingertips. There are unlimited sources from which to glean your news. Seek out the stories that make you irate, sorrowful and inspired, then pass them on. Learn about the world you live in on a more fundamental level — beyond memes and sound bites.

Enjoy the Internet. Share the stories that make you laugh. But don’t allow the insubstantial to drown out that which is dire.

 

Robyn Sundlee ’16 sheepishly admits she is addicted to Imgur. She can be reached at robyn_sundlee@brown.edu.