Reality TV is symptom of bigger problems

by By Paul

Your Feb. 25 editorial on reality television shows, “Ultimate fighting is worst of real TV trend,” contained at least one valid point; namely, that such television shows are entirely gratuitous, and probably encourage voyeurism and a perverse lack of compassion in our society. I object, however, to the distinction you draw between newscast producers and producers of reality TV, shows that use footage of real-life events for entertainment. Granted, “at their best, newscasts provide socially relevant information in a meaningful context.” Few would argue with that. But it’s poor rhetoric to defend a mode of television on the basis of its ideal.
The ideal newscast you cite is at odds with the popular, dictionary and textbook definitions of news I have encountered, all of which include “information of interest” as one component of news. Under the definition of news implied by your editorial, virtually all personal tragedies should be excluded from newscasting because the details of most tragedies are not socially relevant. That is, any given house fire is socially irrelevant, as is any given car accident.
There are exceptions: tragedies involving important people in our society (i.e. mayors, presidents, etc.) are obviously socially relevant because they can directly affect the functioning of our society. More commonly, tragedies can highlight correctable problems in our society.
When two children died in similar and completely avoidable accidents on school buses last year, that may have suggested a need for increased awareness of school bus safety. It was socially relevant. But how is the newscaster to cover such a story? Certainly, the details of a death, the site where it occurred, and the object (be it a tree or a gun or a cliff) which finally separated a person from life are completely in the realm of sensation. And the grief-stricken survivors of such tragedies are among television newscast’s most pathetic images precisely because they epitomize human suffering sensationalism.
Of course, the alternative — dry reportage of important tragedies, or trends in tragedies, with the omission of inessential details and images — is a rather uninteresting affair. A news show operating under such stringent guidelines would not survive even on public television. Television is a sensational medium, less given to the precise reportage of facts than to the titillation of the eyes.
So when we turn on a TV, we expect a certain level of titillation. Furthermore, as the premier medium of our time, TV informs and instructs all of our other media. Consider your own editorial in which we are asked to consider TV footage of brutal fighting, the attack of a human by a wild animal, the maiming by fire of a police officer and the maiming of a bungee jumper. Well-stocked, as most readers are, with stored images of tragedies, your words (and mine) translate effortlessly into images. And that is why your editorial is compelling.
The fact is that most media have to make use of the same voyeuristic motivation in all of us, if they are to reach sizable audiences. I don’t believe this is new to the media of the 1990s, nor even of this century. The suffering of others has been available for the public consumption since the Romans started feeding Christians to the lions, and certainly before. The problem at hand is not that TV producers are airing gratuitously violent programming. The problem is that we find it compelling. And it’s a disturbing problem for most of us precisely because we can recognize the perverse voyeur within us which is entirely able to interpret the imagery of suffering as entertainment.
Ultimately, your editorial champions an artificial compartmentalization of gratuitous sensationalism into good and evil. You label Ultimate Fighting, which can kill or maim, as gratuitous and violent. Boxing, by contrast, enforces a few rules, and is somehow acceptable, despite the fact that boxing also maims, albeit more slowly. The same image of a police officer getting burned is acceptable in an editorial decrying such imagery, but not in the original program that aired it for its own sake. And yet the image is compelling in both places for the same reason: It is sensational.
It is convenient to compartmentalize our consumption of tragedy in such a way that we can vilify some products (i.e. reality TV) while excusing others (i.e. newscasts), but this only serves to blind us to the fact that both rely on the same perverse voyeurism to generate interest. If it is truly our desire not to become desensitized to suffering and violence, the first step must be to acknowledge our consumption of others’ suffering whether we obtain our images from the evening news, reality TV or a car accident we happen to pass on the street. It is not enough simply to vilify reality TV.
Paul Rabie is a sophomore in theCollege of Natural Resources.