News, especially in the 21st century, tends to sensationalise trauma to tap into a wider market. ‘Fetishism’, in the non-sexual context, means an obsessive attachment to irrelevant details which satisfy us. Karl Marx spoke extensively about ‘commodity fetishism’ – human beings were found deeply affected by features of inanimate products. As Dino Felluga puts it in Modules on Marx, “As Marx explains, the commodity remains simple as long as it is tied to its use-value.” In the context of news, how media outlets initially circulate the details of an event is closely tied to that information’s use-value. Soon after, this information is distorted, broken down into parts and pulled apart to eke out something sensational from it. That’s how we end up fetishising disaster and tragedy.
Post Sridevi’s death on February 28, 2018, TV channels and the internet promptly exploded into debate about her cosmetic surgery, whether Boney Kapoor was a murderer, the absence of a hysterical Jahnvi Kapoor and let’s not forget – a journalist reporting from a makeshift ‘Maut Ka Bathtub’ (The Bathtub of Death). These offensive speculations were served and lapped up well before a conclusive post mortem report was released. Apparently nobody involved in this process of disseminating news thought that it would be wise to let the investigation run its full course instead of speculating wildly and distorting a loss that wasn’t even theirs to dissect.
The purpose of news media is to a) publicise the confirmed details of a given situation and b) encourage constructive thinking amongst its audience. In picking at the emotional tension of a sensitive situation, the media is pandering to a consumer with a hankering for something that resembles reality television over actual reality. It’s entertaining, sure. But it blurs the line between fictional and real – the wars that are taking place are not scripted, the tearful farewells of the migrant crisis aren’t temporary and the disasters unfolding on our screens are not conjured up solely for the TRPs.
WhatsApp forwards have been a key weapon in fetishising emergencies. Every day, multiple ‘earthquake’ videos make the rounds, eliciting sympathy from viewers. The authenticity of a piece of information is not part of the criteria to judge such forwards. While the grief for lost lives never fades, unverified forwards end up sparking anxiety for disasters that transpired decades ago. We crave news of the wreckage, details of lost families, videos of people weeping with inconsolable grief. Why? It makes us feel safe in comparison.
There’s a latent guilt which kicks in when we subconsciously (or even consciously) observe the vast difference between our privilege and someone else’s misfortune. Then, as consumers, we accept sensational pieces under the pretext of “learning more” about a situation, but it is undeniable that every broken house we see on our screens makes us grateful for our own solid shelter.
This fetishisation of disaster isn’t restricted to natural calamities but extends to other situations of hardship as well. Just think of how freely we refer to our “brave soldiers” on the border who are ever-present, suffering as they defend us from danger. Any comment can lead back to “Siachen mein hamare jawaan larr rahe hai”. The plight of the military is evident without repeated and detailed references to their excreta, their mangled bodies, their orphaned children, before-after photographs depicting injuries, the list goes on.
Think of the sensation caused by pictures of dead Syrian children and victims of the global migrant crisis. We can argue that seeing such images makes us more sympathetic – tearing at our heartstrings as we imagine our own beloved family members in those situations. But why is sensationalism the only way to elicit sympathy or interest from us?
Empathy should not depend on the painful details of the lives of the unprivileged. We should not have to put ourselves in the shoes of the dead or grieving to recognise the shortcomings in the way our countries are governed. Victims and survivors should not have to commodities themselves for our voyeurism just so they can access the assistance and attention that is their due anyway. We, as a global society, should do away with ranking disasters and instead question our inability to empathise without sensationalising trauma.
It is high time we learnt to separate the use-value of a news article from the fetishised version of it. I, for one, have decided to unfollow/block any source that sends me videos of the Kerala flood crisis, with a slow background score, and amateur special effects. The world is terrible and life is harrowing enough in the Original Package itself, we don’t really need to sign up for a Premium dosage of misery just so some website can make money every time we click on one more listicle selling us a sense of tragedy.
Meghalee Mitra is a 21-year-old writer based in Kolkata.