News fodder is dangerous

By Andy Christian Castillo

First, I love what America stands for, and, to me, the flag represents that. I’ve saluted the flag, folded it at twilight as taps played, then raised it at dawn to revelry, and helped fellow Airmen display it during funerals. Today, I prominently display it in my own house and view it as a symbol of democracy and freedom. The flag is important to me, but I understand it doesn’t mean the same to everyone.

When students from Hampshire College burned the school’s flag on Veterans Day, I thought it was in bad taste. However, to each their own. I’m not angry; disappointed? Yes. Angry? No. Burn all the flags you want, it’s nothing more than a statement, and I get it: a lot of taxpaying Americans don’t think the country represents them as individuals well.

I can’t blame them: racism is rampant in our country today, homosexuality is hated and anger drives everything. To those that feel like that, the flag is a symbol of a Nationalistic government that oppresses its people, and has from the start. That’s true: look at Standing Rock today; compare that instance to how the nation was started, and the massacres of Native Americans and enslaved Africans over the next 200 or so years.

Yeah, America is pretty messed up, and was founded on bloody ground.

Different ways to view the flag

On the other hand, America represents freedom to many. At the core, its ideals and values are pure and unmarred: all men and women are created equal; can pursue happiness, etc. Also, it’s a symbol of Democracy which is the greatest form of human government on earth; and, as proven, a peaceful way for those that disagree to coexist.

Just as the flag, to some, represents Nationalism and Imperialism forced onto other countries, it also represents those that have died a honorable death in defense of those freedoms outlined above. The red white and blue colors cover a broad spectrum of belief and opinions — after all, that’s what being American is all about: diversity.

When the school removed its flag to promote discussion among students, and give them a chance to be upset, the nation exploded into uproar: a rabid anger was tapped that’s been boiling in the nation since the start of the presidential race. People on both sides of the political divide are angry.

To those Patriotic folks who bleed red, white and blue, the nation has become a disunited motley crew of pansies; jobs have departed, the economy slowed, and America seems to be sliding down the food chain. There was a time when America was strong, post-WWII is usually the time-period many point to, but it’s not anymore. As remedy, the younger generation needs to suck it up, get a dose of reality, shut up and get with the program (those are some comments I’ve heard). For these folks, patriotism needs to come back in order for the nation to be unified once again.

For many Democrats, who lean toward more liberal perspectives, the nation seems to be falling into a pit of hatred bubbling with racism, sexism, and every other ism there is; many people are trampled, and have been trampled in the past, by ‘the American identity.’ For those folks, there’s a lot of pain and the future is terrifying (those are the perspectives I’ve seen). For these folks, unity and acceptance of all people needs to happen before patriotism can occur.

Yes, these two vastly different perspectives have always existed, dating back to the nation’s origins. However, they’ve managed to stay within their prospective camps, meeting only at family dinners and political rallies. Not anymore.

Now, those two groups clash on a regular bases, brought together for better or worse by the digital era. The growing pains are real, and this is a relatively new phenomenon: in the past decade, the explosion of social media as a mode of communication has changed every aspect of human interaction, perhaps most visibly within the political arena.

Driving this collision of world-views is conglomerate news organizations. Without these agents of information, which span the entire nation — from coast to coast — information wouldn’t be disseminated to each prospective party. News media organizations have definite slants; everyone knows that. And those that agree with certain organizations will probably share those articles on social media. That’s when the clashes come; that’s when others, who might live on the other side of the world but who are connected in some way, might be confronted with an opinion they might not otherwise see.

Fireworks ensue, arguments begin, friendships disintegrate, stories go viral and media organizations see revenue increase. That’s the world we live in today; news is driven by revenue, not necessarily reality.

The 24-hour news cycle

To explain why these organizations are creating these firestorms, one first must understand the state of media in the United States: It’s not good. Local newspapers that’ve been around for the past 400 years are closing up shop, letting go reporters and selling historic buildings. Or, on the other hand, they’re bought out by larger media outlets, which are in turn owned by even larger organizations. In both cases the outcome is the same: the American public is losing local and individualized coverage of important topics in favor of louder voices speaking on a national stage.

In order to stay afloat, many news agencies have sold out to tabloid-esk tactics of sensationalizing trivial stories, misleading readers with dramatized information or crafting catchy headlines that don’t capture the heart of the issue at hand, but tempt more readers to browse their website.

In this madness that is the media in 2016, the media being a broad term that encompasses any information agency, the losers are the American people. Ironically, it’s also the American people, as a whole, that created the media’s downfall by refusing to pay for good news, demanding everything for free via the internet, and discrediting every other voice they disagree with on other news agencies.

So what’s the real story?

In light of this revelation: the real story of the Hampshire College flag controversy is the media’s coverage of it. A brave reporter who hung around on the outskirts of the crowds listening to fellow newshounds, or straight up asked others in the field why the story was so big, would uncover pure gold.

That’s a story I want to read.

I suspect that you’ll hear that “newsroom directors pushed the story because traffic on the website is way up,” and that “the story is performing better than every other story this year,” or that “the story was shared more than 1,000 times on Facebook overnight.”

I suspect you’ll hear that “this is the biggest story we’ve covered all year. It’s national. My footage was shown on CNN and Fox News.”

Let me back up for a minute: the story is national because it’s been reblogged, retweeted and otherwise rewritten by national news sources. The story itself is this: a private university, renown for holding counter-culture perspectives, in a very liberal part of the state, removed the flag after a very controversial election after students repeatedly burned it.

For those that live in the area, and understand the school’s history, this isn’t a surprise; however, for those who live across the nation who hold vastly different view points, and who’re brought this hyper-local story via the internet, it’s an absolute outrage.

At the end of the day, the story is trivial; whether or not a private university flies a flag has no relevance on the grand scheme of things in America today. Yes, it might be a bit upsetting to people (recent stories about the Confederate flag had a similar reaction, but not to this extent), but all in all, it doesn’t really have much journalistic merit aside from political expedience and exploitation of the school’s protest (which, I suppose, is significant in terms of profit).

Media coverage has capitalized on anger: a microcosm of a broader problem with journalistic coverage that has, in many respects, become tabloid.

The Hampshire College story is a classic case of “big media outlets re-blogging content produced by local newspapers because it’s a low-hanging fruit that will get people riled up and, oh, by the way, we just laid off ten people this week so we’re strapped for stories, but we have interns! And they know social media so they can re-blog content created by others for free!”

Going viral isn’t necessarily a good thing for the public

BANG. The story goes viral.

It was reblogged not because it’s an important story, but because newsroom directors seized it to drive up website traffic. It’s fodder for talking points and political agendas, churned out at an ever-increasing rate as content for the 24 hour news cycle.

Those news agencies that aren’t as ingrained into the online community haven’t fallen prey to this click-bait storytelling concept: these organizations haven’t sensationalized the Hampshire College story, because it’s trivial.

As an example: 22News, a locally based 24-hour broadcast news station covering Western Mass. has written and posted 42 articles about Hampshire College. The Springfield Republican, a newspaper (not 24/7), which posts its stories on MassLive.com (which is 24/7), has written roughly 15 stories. Western Mass. News, which is on the 24-hour cycle, driving its profit from online traffic, has written about 20 articles about the controversy.

In contrast, the Daily Hampshire Gazette, a local paper covering Hampshire County, not on the 24-hour cycle, has written about 10 articles on the controversy, with about another 10 or so letters and columns submitted to the paper by its readers.

While this debacle has been happening, the American public entirely captured by a trivial, unimportant story, the Associated Press reports that “While last month merely tied for the world’s third warmest October in history, 2016 is still on track to be the hottest year on record, federal meteorologists said Thursday.”

Also, a plane carrying an entire soccer team crashed, and the Presidential Elect is making decisions that will directly affect the country and its population, not to mention the various conflicts that are ongoing around the world and a plethora of local news that’s far more important to those that live there.

However, because of social media, these viral stories are what grab people’s attention: news that, in the grand scheme of things, is entirely frivolous.

It’s dangerous, and influences the broader social realm for the worse — particularly in our interactions with each other.

Thus, the REAL journalistic piece is about journalism itself: the Hampshire College controversy reveals that like nothing else I’ve seen.

In a sense: the story is comparable to writing a piece about a UFO sighting in Washington state after the release of War of the World’s. Is it actually important? No. But does it sell? Definitely, because people are terrified from the movie.

All of this being said, and in short, the Hampshire College flag controversy is a local story; nothing more, nothing less. It became viral because it taps into the anger many feel, as related at the beginning of this piece, toward their fellow Americans. The journalistic aspect of the story is absolutely minimal. However, the anger it’s tapping into is national. In light of that, the story is more tabloid than anything else.

What the American public really needs to be enlightened of is that these viral stories are happening — and they’re being blinded to what’s really happening in the world so that media agencies can make a profit.

So take the blinders off. Stop feeding into this viral news fodder. Think for yourself, and have compassion on your fellow countrymen and women.


Andy Christian CastilloAndy Christian Castillo is the Founder of Ver・ism(s).  He is a military veteran and student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he studied English. Now, he’s pursuing a graduate degree in creative non fiction from Bay Path University.  In his free time, he plays music, writes poetry, gallivants around the world, climbs mountains and runs through the pouring rain.

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