The day the box burst.
There was a time, not so long ago, that media fit inside a neat, little, predictable box. It was always there, and I could choose to acknowledge it or leave it in the box for another time. I could approach media on my own terms, even as it constantly flickered around the edge of my awareness. However, on June 25, 2011, my understanding of the media was irrevocably altered.
For me, the day started as a sunny, summer celebration for the five of us high school friends. We were excited to be together to celebrate the Fourth of July. We laughed as we sang along with the radio on our way to a barbecue. We talked about whom we would see at the fireworks later that night. Light and joyous, we were glad to be together for the summer. That was the last thing that I remember before… I never even saw it coming.
See, for him, the day started with a drink and then another and another. Later, he climbed into his truck and, unbeknownst to any of us, he headed our way. We met tragically and fatally on Hwy 35 in Holmen, WI. Five of us girls climbed into the car, but only four of us came out.
My neat, little media box burst apart that day. I could no longer take only what I wanted from the box because it spewed forth newspaper articles, and Facebook posts, and reporters wanting to know my side of the story. No longer did I go looking for the media because it was always right there; so goes life in a small town, I guess. I think what truly shocked me, however, was the unrestrained manner in which the news traversed the community.
Facebook, an online social networking site, revolutionized the way that people communicate. MySpace and Friendster, earlier models of online social networking, each had their impacts, but in my life, neither website affected communication in as big a way as did the “Book”. As a millennial, the Internet and social media encompassed my life in a much bigger and faster manner than it did for my parents, members of the baby boomer generation. Not having grown up in a rapidly expanding technocentric world, they did not yet understand the far-reaching hand of Facebook, especially. It is no wonder then that my younger sister, Emily, was informed through Facebook of the tragedy that had not only just rippled through her home community but had reached right into her own family. My parents did not want to call and alarm Emily until they had some solid information to give her. Was I okay? What had happened? It never occurred to them that the news would already have traveled two and a half hours away because they had not yet adjusted their expectations to account for the realities of Facebook.
In my new reality, media is inherent to my everyday life. Upon reflection, it always was, but I had never focused long enough to perceive it. Immediately after the accident, I didn’t know. I didn’t remember. I didn’t understand the magnitude that the tragedy affected on myself, much less my close-knit hometown. Eventually, I could feel the town watching me and my family and friends. People I had never met sent cards of consolation.
The town, they followed the story. They all wanted to know. They wanted the details, and they wanted pictures. They wanted to know what would happen to the man who violently stole one of our own. I cannot say that I wasn’t grateful for the heartfelt words and the strong pull of a community on my side, but it was too much. I didn’t know. I didn’t remember. I didn’t understand, and I was desperately trying to reconcile, realign my emotions to mentally grasp the new circumstances of my life—injuries, emotional scars, the loss of a close friend.
The last straw? The straw that broke the camel’s back? It was a news article printed boldly on the front page of the La Crosse Tribune. It shared that the drunk driver had written apology letters to his victims. He wanted to say sorry for what he had done and what he had taken. The article ended with a bolded statement inviting the entire community to read my private apology letter, which they had posted online.
This event, this most terrible time of my life had become a spectacle. I no longer felt that the media was on my side. I felt exposed and betrayed. My life now was little more than a story the media used to sell newspapers and fill airtime.
Perhaps this representation of the media seems dramatized, and maybe it is. But my emotions were real, and it hurt all the same.
In the years since the accident, I have been able to step back and examine not only how the media circulates a story but also the different ways in which people may interact with it. Of course, my analysis is based entirely on a personal tragedy and in a small-scale market, so it is possible that my conclusions may not be wholly applicable to society at large. All the same, I feel that they do. The media is a business, and its primary goal is to inform. There is nothing in the First Amendment that restrains the press on account of what I may emotionally feel about a story. Their responsibility to the community is to ensure that the people are aware of what is happening in the world around them and, hopefully, to encourage active participation in that world. I was angry that the media would pry so deeply into my private affairs, but how am I to know that my story didn’t affect people for the better? Perhaps, a detailed look at a grim accident is enough to prompt smarter decisions or even a demand for harsher sentencing.
It is interesting, too, to consider the responses of those touched by my story through the media. The accident, or any news story, was like a pebble dropped into a still pool of water. Being closest to the “pebble”, I have followed the story intently, feeling the greatest consequences as it rippled out. There are those in the community that follow the story for other reasons. Some wanted to see that justice was served. Others didn’t trust the local judge to affect that justice, so they followed the case, posting criticisms along the way.
I was intrigued by perusing the reader comments posted in response to news articles available online. Some responses came in the form of condolences. Others were loud opinions on what happened, what should have happened, or what can be done to prevent something similar happening again in the future. I had to laugh to myself when I read these posts because these were people who had such adamant opinions on something they knew nothing about. They weren’t there. They didn’t know. They frequently got their facts wrong. They were angry for things that I myself had since forgiven.
These are my observations on a small scale. Still, I can’t help but wonder if the same things happen in the national media as well. I can only suppose that they do. How could it not happen? People can read a magazine and feel that they know Jennifer Aniston or Justin Bieber. However, that parasocial interaction is nothing but a synthetic reaction to seeing and hearing them so often in the media. The media is able to manipulate a malleable audience, so it is important that people are educated in media literacy. In a paper arguing for the importance of media literacy, especially in the political arena, Justin Lewis and Sut Jhally said that “to evaluate [media messages], students must learn to see them not simply as true or false, realistic or misleading, stereotypical or positive, but as authored voices” (119) specifically intended to evoke certain emotions and/or opinions. As I digest media now, to the annoyance of some, I constantly question the other side of things. I wonder if things are really what they may seem as reported by the media. To this end, I usually pay no attention to celebrity gossip because I perceive that information to be generally unreliable. For my news information, I rely on a variation of CNN, the BBC, and Al Jazeera in order to obtain a broad view of what is happening around the globe. Of course, all my media “rules” fly out the window when it comes to entertainment media; Netflix pretty much owns my life.
Lewis, Justin and Sut Jhally. “The Struggle Over Media Literacy.” Journal of Communication 48.1 (Winter, 1998): 109-120. Web. 6 Feb. 2015.