The biggest headline on today’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch is the story of a family found dead in their home, killed in a domestic dispute. A few days ago, it was the tragedy in Joplin, and before that the story of someone sentenced for having shot two or three people to death. What is common to all the headlines I have read in this paper since I’ve had access to it is the way they meticulously document the tragedies that happen around us every day. I have a problem with that – not in the fact that tragedy happens, but in the way it assaults my senses when I wake up in the morning. I don’t know about you, but I like to have my breakfast while reading something even remotely encouraging. So I skip to the art section to read cartoons, and reviews.
“Do you think it leads to a kind of schizophrenia” Ron asked me once, “when you live every day as ordinarily as possible, and then open the paper and see news of murder, accidents, death sentences etc that you never hear of during the day?” It might, I believe, if one spends everyday poring through the many sad news scattered around the pages of the daily. St. Louis has been called the most dangerous city in America – no doubt because of the amount of bad press it gets, yet in all my visits the city, even to the so called dangerous parts, I have never encountered anything remotely frightening. But there it is: a city judged by the media reports of the amounts of crimes that take place within its borders. I guess if one were to make travel or leisure plans based on media reports alone, we would never go anywhere.
A friend of mine said his biggest fear of coming to America was based on the fear of coming to school one day (or walking on the street) and having someone come in and start shooting, or hold everyone up at gun point. Thanks to Hollywood, cable tv and news reports from America to all the parts of the world, reckless use of firearms tops the list of the most defining characteristics of the country’s street life. And yet – until I went with a group of friends to a firing range just a few weeks ago – I had never seen a gun with anyone in the country except the cops (who always have them safely tucked in their holsters). People who make a decision about visiting Nigeria from reading what the papers report every day will go through this same schizzy process of reconciling the normal everyday life of its citizens, comparable to any elsewhere in the world, with the newspapers’ fascination with tragedy.
Do newspapers know just how much they influence foreigner perception. Well, of course they do. But what can they do about it?