Proximity, affinity, and mutuality

Before Gannett’s lay-offs ruined the newspaper I worked at, I had late-night company in the newsroom where I fought with the paper’s clumsy, jerry-rigged CMS to convert the print edition into its online format. Sitting nearby there would be a last-shift final-edition copy editor, watching the wires to update national and international stories with new developments and late-breaking news.

Our shrinking news hole meant that this task involved making ghastly choices and decisions prioritizing some stories over others. The bus crash in California or the Chinese earthquake? We couldn’t fit both. Details on both stories were sketchy and few. Initial accounts reported a higher death toll in China, but that was farther away, so we went with the bus crash. It wasn’t that Chinese lives were less newsworthy or less valuable, but proximity was always a factor.

localnewsThat’s why, as this late-shift editor scanned the AP wire, they’d also keep one ear out for the police-band radio squawking occasionally on the desk nearby. Any news coming from that radio was likely to pre-empt whatever the wires had to say about California or China or anywhere else.

Proximity always matters in the news business. That’s why, at that Delaware paper, a Delaware factory closing that left 20 people jobless was a major story on the front page, while a Michigan factory closing leaving hundreds without a livelihood would be relegated to the briefs in the back of the business section. Our report on the local factory would go out on the wires where it would, perhaps, be picked up by some Michigan paper where it might run, appropriately, as a tiny brief in the back of their business section.

The local angle matters. For a local paper, a local house fire will be a bigger story than a distant war or election or disaster. This is, in itself, not troubling. Geographic proximity is a legitimate component for news judgment when reporting for a geographically finite human audience. It seems possible, at least in the abstract, to prioritize that California bus crash over that Chinese earthquake.

In practice, though, it’s never quite so simple. Regardless of the intent, such prioritizing seems to convey that ugly idea that Chinese lives are less noteworthy, and thus less valuable, than the lives of Californians.

And it becomes even more troubling when you start to realize that local house fires happen every day, but only some of those become big stories. The local angle and geographic proximity can’t have anything to do with those distinctions. In those cases, quite often, it comes down to a matter of images — dramatic footage of the fire itself, or a compelling picture of the young children in the displaced family.

That word “compelling” there covers a multitude of sins. It carries a host of unspoken assumptions, affinities, and assertions that lead editors to regard one child’s photo as more compelling than another’s. Greg Bottoms described this in stark terms in the gut-wrenching Killing the Buddha piece I linked to the other day. Bottoms worked the crime beat for a local newspaper:

I’d become used to a daily dose of stupid/sad/unbelievable/shocking/well-planned/random crime. But no one was killing anyone in the greater Tidewater area. No drug busts. A few pretty serious domestic calls — men bouncing their wives or girlfriends off of walls or subjecting them to various kinds of sexual sadism — but honestly that was so common a call-in I only went out, per my managing editor’s instructions, when a) the people weren’t poor blacks or, his phrase, “honky trash,” b) there was a death involved, or c) a kid got caught up in the fracas. The domestic stuff needed to be unusual or extreme, have real cash or seduction or transgressive horror bound up in it, or at least involve someone of local importance or celebrity. The old news cliché of “if it bleeds, it leads” is misleading, or it only acknowledges one aspect of journalistic story-choice hierarchy. Violence is everywhere, every day. Some of it is exalted, becomes iconic through repetitive media coverage. Most of it gets no coverage at all.

It’s rarely stated as explicitly as Bottoms’ managing editor put it, but race and class have always played a role in decisions about newsworthiness and what he calls “story-choice hierarchy.” Sometimes that’s due to conscious, deliberate bias and prejudice. More often, and more perniciously, it’s due to unconscious, unintentional bias and prejudice.

And I’m not exempting myself from that. That is just as true for me, individually, as it was for either of the papers that Bottoms and I used to work for. It’s true in many ways I’m acutely aware of, in many more ways I’m only dimly aware of, and in still many, many more ways of which I haven’t even yet begun to be dimly aware.

Part of how such unconscious — or, perhaps, less- or semi-conscious — prejudice expresses itself is through what Ellen Painter Dollar describes as “affinity.” She struggles with that idea — with its legitimate and illegitimate aspects — in a probing, candid, reflective post titled “Why I’m Not Capable of an Equitable Distribution of Empathy for Terror Attacks.” It’s partly confessional, partly apologetic — with the confessional aspect, I think, being the stronger part.

Here is the core of her post:

Empathy is not a zero-sum game; caring about one tragedy doesn’t prevent me from caring about another. But neither is our capacity for empathetic engagement unlimited. We do not have the emotional or intellectual capacity to respond to every tragedy with equal measures of outrage or pain. We gravitate toward stories about people with whom we feel an affinity.

Of course, to the extent that our affinities are rooted in misinformation, ignorance, damaging historical legacies, and prejudice, we must challenge them. The disparity in reactions to the Paris attacks vs. other terrorist attacks raises vital questions about media bias; Americans’ limited and skewed perceptions of particular places and peoples; and how Western interventions in the Middle East have influenced the development of terrorist groups.

Christians, furthermore, are called to stretch our limitations and affinities. Our capacity for empathy may be limited, but God’s love is not. Jesus pressed his followers to care for outsiders and question our responsibilities to family or tribe if they become roadblocks to our answering God’s call. The way of Jesus is one in which we begin to feel an affinity for all people, regardless of whether we have common experiences or cultures, because we see everyone as one of God’s beloved.

“Be perfect,” Jesus said, “as your heavenly Father is perfect.” And he said this to a bunch of humans that he knew full well were not capable of such divine perfection. We are finite creatures with a finite “capacity for empathetic engagement.”

Our responsibility — our obligation — exceeds our finite capability to meet that responsibility. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” the inspired epistle says. But I can scarcely comprehend injustice everywhere, let alone do anything meaningful about it.

But that sacred text continues, and the following sentences, I think, point toward something that can help us to move beyond the prejudices of our affinities or the paralysis of our finitude: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

It’s all tied together, interwoven, connected. What is done in one place, in one role, “affects all indirectly.” Our responsibility is boundless and infinite, but it is also particular and differentiated. No one of us has to do everything, or to know everything. But each of us has to play our role in that inescapable network.

Here, again, proximity can be a legitimate factor. Affinity, too, perhaps. But I don’t think affinity can ever be wholly trusted. Think of another story Jesus told — the story of the rich man and the beggar Lazarus. The gap between proximity and affinity was precisely what that story was all about.

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