"Teenage girl exists only on ramen noodles" ran the Yahoo headline. Unfortunately this girl is so malnourished that she has the health of an 80 year-old man. But who cares? It's news, right?
With the 24-hour constant news cycle, regular everyday news has started to sound like the National Enquirer.
And just when I thought we couldn't sink any lower came a story about Chloe Jennings-White, a young woman who fantasizes about being a paraplegic and wants to undergo spinal surgery to make her legs stop working. She has been diagnosed with Body Integrity Identity Disorder (please tell me this isn't in the new DSM-5!). Without analyzing Ms. Jennings-White and her confusion, we can still ask ourselves if this qualifies as news. Is this something we "need to know"? Is this news that's "fit to print" (or post)?
There is a cost to the 24/7 demand for news. Not only is the same news repeated over and over again (as I write this in a hotel lobby, CNN keeps informing me that Kate is in labor and that Prime Minister Cameron sends his best wishes) I'm not even sure if any of that, especially the latter, even qualifies as news.
But, of course, when repetition doesn't work, when there isn't a natural disaster, when there isn't a war somewhere (strike that, there's always a war somewhere), when there's nothing left to say about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process (wait a minute, that's never stopped anyone!), the news shows and websites start scraping the bottom of the barrel.
What we get is the modern day version of the freak show. In times past, it was a choice to see a freak show. The circus rolled into town, a booth was set up, a fee paid and tickets purchased to get in to see the unfortunate people who had allowed others or themselves to capitalize on their physical challenges.
Now the choice is not so simple. Sometimes all we do is log on to a site looking for legitimate news and there, front and center, is the modern freak show - stories we wish we hadn't read, images we wish we hadn't seen. We feel bombarded and victimized.
But we still do have a choice. We are the consumers and we vote with our feet - or our mouse. We need to avoid the sites with the sensationalist stories (or at least avoid the urge to click on the story) and the website and newspaper editors will get the message.
We all have some perverse desire to watch these freak shows (look at all the Jerry Springer fans!), to read the horror stories that are some people's lives. But we also know that it doesn’t serve our higher selves. In fact, it brings us down. It makes us less than.
If we would use these tales to awake our compassion, as a call to action, that would be one thing. But I suspect not to many of us do that.
It's hard not to look. It's difficult not to listen. It's a challenge for me to ignore that extra rationalization - "You could write about it" - in fact some people even send me the pieces with that intent (you know who you are!) and it would be rude to ignore them, wouldn't it?
But I don't want to turn other human beings into animals in the zoo. I don't want their pain or difficulties to be a source of pleasure/interest/writing material. So I need to work on opting out, on not reading the articles, not clicking on the stories, on only searching for the important headlines.
I want to keep my focus on the dignity of the human being, on his or her potential for greatness, even if they have perhaps lost that sense themselves. It won't be easy. Those subject lines in my inbox are seductive. But the damage is too great; I'm afraid of becoming my own freak show...