Thursday, Jan. 23 was a big day in news. In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the South Sudanese government signed a cease-fire agreement with rebel factions, bringing a respite to five weeks of violent conflict. On the other side of the globe, President Viktor Yanukovych met with three opposition leaders to discuss a strategy to end ongoing protests in Kiev that had turned violent, leaving three dead in the Ukrainian capital.
Despite all this, in the U.S., a Canadian popstar dominated the headlines: Justin Bieber arrested for drag racing his Lamborghini.
The 19-year-old was charged with drunk driving and resisting arrest in Miami Beach early Thursday morning, according to NBC news. CNN’s front page later revealed that he was released on $2,500 bond later in the afternoon.
In fact, out of the 10 most popular news sites stated by Alexa Global Traffic Rank, 6 ran the Bieber story on the front page – 3 had Bieber as the top headline.
The fact that a story as sensational and trashy as Bieber’s dominated the big news outlets, especially on a day as filled with historical relevance and impact as Thursday, is troubling to say the least. The appeal of the story is obvious; watching a child star go supernova is a generational right of passage. It is an obvious guilty pleasure, but one which must, for the sake of an American culture worth defending, remain guilty.
Entertainment news is just that; entertainment. It has its place. But when real stories, affecting real people in life-altering (or life-ending) ways, entertainment needs to take a back seat to the information; the sugary human interest piece needs to yield to the meat and potatoes that is global breaking news.
It is difficult to blame the news organizations for not enforcing this responsibility; they simply respond to their audience. The viewers set the standards. Perhaps it is time then, that we take a deeper look at what those standards reflect.
Even the most cursory glance around our country (and our world) will tell you, things are not as they should be. A growing wage gap, an obesity epidemic, climate change – things we should be having a continued, serious national discussion on at all levels. But instead we follow Bieber, because we understand the storyline and don’t have to think too much.
Therein lies the problem- following these stories is just more comfortable. They are easy to assimilate into our worldview. They require no mental gymnastics, just a healthy dose of drama. It is easy to see the appeal of this, as it can make you feel informed without teaching you anything at all. Critical thinking, on the other hand, is difficult. It requires constant assessment, diligence in the selection of sources and ultimately a commitment to learning more about the world as it is, not as we want it to be. The rewards, however, vastly exceed the investment.
The news drives the national conversation. It reflects the interests, and to a more subtle extent, the standards of a society. By demanding fluff in place of thought-provoking journalism, we tell the news organizations that fluff is what we value- that we are only interested in dessert, not dinner. Unless we make a change, we tell the people in the streets of Kiev and fighting in Sudan, that their freedom is important to Americans- just not as important as Justin Bieber.
Photo: Miami-Dade Police Department