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Saturday, January 22, 2022

Sensationalizing tragedies is unethical

Media coverage and social media’s response to Astroworld demonstrates desensitization to tragedy

On Nov. 7, Travis Scott’s “Astroworld” concert in Houston became a mass casualty event, killing eight people that night and as of Nov. 11, one other. By now, most people have heard about the event — from the news, social media, conversations with friends — but much of the content and buzz around the tragedy hasn’t focused on the eight people who lost their lives, let alone the many others who were injured or traumatized by the event. 

Headlines like “Fans claim ‘The Simpsons’ Predicted Astroworld Tragedy” and rumors of Travis Scott being spotted at Dave & Buster’s post-concert have been prominent in newsfeeds. And while there are some articles that honor the victims in a respectful way, like the New York Times tribute to the eight individuals killed the night of the concert, many stories focus on the celebrities involved, rather than the victims, for clicks.

While as journalists we are taught to grab an audience with our headlines and lead with the juicy details that are going to make readers want to know more, we also know that we cannot forget humanity in that process. Yes, hooking our audience and making content that is entertaining and informative is our job, but it is also a main principle to do so in the least harmful manner. The way that this event has been co-opted by certain media outlets to increase profit and by all of us personally for some twisted form of entertainment is a prime example of both the desensitization and sensationalization toward tragedy that the internet has created.

Over the past few days, TikToks of the chaotic crowd at Travis Scott’s concert have collected millions of views and likes. There are hundreds of comment sections on social media platforms, not to mention real life conversations with friends, obsessing and gossiping about who’s at fault, what charges will be brought against Travis Scott, and is Kylie Jenner going to stand by him? 

It’s no surprise that due to the ubiquity of social media and constant availability of the news, in combination with the unfortunate reality that the past few years have been violent and deadly, there seems to be an increasing cultural desensitization to death. But at what point does it become unethical to profit — either monetarily, or in rich conversation and stimulation — off of real people’s tragedies and lives? Even though these topics need to be reported on, the goal should be to inform rather than to reel readers in through shock factor. 

Unfortunately, the Astroworld festival was not the first tragedy to go viral this fall. The case of the missing woman, Gabby Petito, who was presumed to have been murdered by her then boyfriend, Brian Laundrie, was all over Tiktok, Instagram and media outlets in September.

There were search parties, TikTok theories and endless “breaking news” cycles while authorities were searching for Laundrie, but after Laundrie’s body was found and the mystery was “over,” society at large lost all interest suddenly and entirely, but the two families still have to recover from being shoved into the spotlight while grieving. 

It’s neither entirely the media’s fault, nor is it ours as consumers that we are so invested in tragedies. Like driving past a car accident on the highway, it is somewhat impossible not to look out the window at the scene. But that only happens once in a while — not every time we turn on our phones.

With death and tragedy so readily available online, it can be both overwhelming and desensitizing. It’s sometimes difficult to remember that though these tragic stories often get reduced to money-making headlines and “entertainment,” they are the stories of real people’s lives, and they can affect our lives. So, even though it’s not realistic, or socially responsible, to completely stop writing or talking about tragedy, we can all try to be more careful to notice how we discuss these real, terrible events — both to honor and respect the people affected, and as a service to protect ourselves.

Written by: The Editorial Board

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