Does anyone remember when news coverage of the Ebola crisis ended? Who remembers learning that outbreaks were likely to occur, but currently they are near zero in West Africa, according to the World Health Organization? When is the last time there was a front page cover about the Syrian refugee crisis, one of the largest humanitarian crises facing the global community?
When cable news camera crews pack up and leave, the newspaper correspondents have flown to other parts of the world, and the online news editors have started paying attention to other “breaking news,” the vast majority of viewers, readers, and users will have already moved on to more “interesting” phenomena. They will have forgotten about the men, women, and children who swam or floated on makeshift rafts to enter a land where the daily threat of bombs crushing their house—and them with it—no longer tears at them, where they are free to find a job, a home, and a life away from tents near dangerous borders. To cover stories like these, American reporters and journalists from around the world put their lives in extreme danger.
The story will no longer be viral.
The word “viral” is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “of the nature of, caused by, or relating to a virus or viruses.” Anyone who has been in a communal area knows just how quickly a disease spreads; the rapid-developing viruses sweep in and leave some sort of destruction in their wake.
If we were to apply “viral” and its physiological definition to media consumption, we would see stories causing enough fuss to make level-headed folks sick of the Facebook sharing, and then leave. Society goes on as if nothing happened, as if we have healed from that story’s consequences; that is, until the next viral story comes flooding in.
Viral media has robbed our society of the capacity to hold long-term feelings or interest for that which we see on the screens before us. Ebola makes us gasp, then forget. Zika worries us, until we turn away. Syrian refugees—real humans in need of real help—become discussion topics over dinner. We pay the tab, walk out the door, and move on to better things. This careless, viral behavior is killing the usefulness of media and the compassion of the minds consuming it.
The Syrian refugees are not going away when we click on something else on our browser. They exist. They are running from a virus of a different sort: the threat of heavy-handed state oppression or the prospect of life under merciless rule by the Islamic State. How dare we make these victims just another viral “trend”?
Before we click on the next link we see, whether that leads to a video, a picture, or a news story, may we keep in mind one thing: viruses must be healed if a society desires to be of any use in healing actual problems.