Media Literacy in an Age of Immediate and Horrible News

“Technology always has unforeseen consequences, and it is not always clear,

at the beginning, who or what will win, and who or what will lose…”

― Neil Postman

FYI There are graphic photos in this post.

This will be a garbled post because I am still processing all of the news and images from the last couple of weeks. But one thing is certain: we need to have a serious conversation about the way our technology has affected our news cycles, production and reactions.  What role can media literacy play in the processing of these horrible news days?

There’s the live video of Alton Sterling’s shooting in Baton Rouge.  There’s the live video of Philando Castile’s shooting.  We watched the events in Dallas unfold in real time while watching online and on TV.

Then there are the countless videos of the horrific event in Nice, France.  One was posted this morning where you can hear a woman scream “My daughter!” right after the big white truck exits the frame.

Our phones, which connect, inform and entertain us, also have the power to make certain stories into movements and certain events into voyeuristic news porn.  This power is something we need to discuss and analyze.

(Full disclosure:  I have often wondered what I would do if I found myself in the middle of a breaking news story.  You know what I’d do?  Probably pull out my phone.  So I’m definitely not judging here.)

Just because we CAN take a photo of the bodies in Nice, should we?  Has our fascination with technology made us immune to humanity?  And if one takes a graphic photo, should it be shared?  And if shared, should it be on the front page of a newspaper?  What if the photo really captures the event, even if it is horrific?

My mind goes back to the Oklahoma City bombing.  This was the most iconic photo of the event.


On “News Ethics” day in class, this photo is scrutinized.  Half of my students usually say it is too graphic.  The other half say that it captures the event perfectly: there was a daycare in that building that was bombed. Kids were killed.  I can see both sides here.

So now we are bombarded with photos from Nice.  At what point do we get desensitized to all of this?


Maybe I’m getting soft.  But at some point, we need to ask ourselves – and our students – some questions about the role of cell phones, images and livestreaming in our news consumption.

This semester in my media literacy classes, I will bring up the following questions:

  • is it ever inappropriate to livestream an event?
  • what are some possible ways that people could interpret your film or photo?
  • if you were a news editor, would you have guidelines for photos that you broadcast or print?
  • in what ways can you verify cell phone-obtained materials?
  • are there people who have been killed by police and NOT filmed?  do we know their names?
  • what role do images/videos play in your interest in news events?

I know I am missing loads of questions. In the meantime, I will reflect nostalgically when THIS was “breaking news”.


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