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You Gotta Call It Like It Is

Okay, so I’m still getting back in the swing of posting again. So thank you all for bearing with me!

As I’m sure many of you have heard, late Friday night, a group of white nationalists, or according to some, supremacists marched on the University of Virginia campus, yelling chants implying white oppression. According to Rev. Seth Wispelwey in an article from the New York Times, “People are angry, they’re scared, they’re hurt, they’re confused.” As per the same article, the march started in part because this group of white nationalists were opposed to a plan to take down a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee.

These people’s fear are well founded too, in a report by the Huffington Post, three people have died and 35 people have been injured following the rally due in part to a helicopter crash. Others were injured when a car plowed into an anti-racist group while they clashed with the white supremacist activists, some of whom were armed while others were not. Given that there have been injuries and death on both sides—the white nationalists as well as anti-racists—many are upset and have spoken out against the incident.

In fact, Virginia governor Terry McAuliff declared a state of emergency yesterday afternoon, Attorney Jeff Sessions declared an investigation into the violence, and Trump has made a speech that prompted a lot of backlash from many.

He blamed both sides—again, the nationalists and the anti-racists—for the violence, saying that we must respect each other, and hopefully love each other. He began by discouraging the bigotry that prompted the protests and violence. Many celebrities as well as political figures have called him out on his statement, implying a level of inconsistency between this speech and his previous statements. Furthermore, many have scolded him for blaming both sides—Colorado Senator Corey Gardner tweeting “Mr. President – we must call evil by its name. These are white supremacists and this was domestic terrorism.” Others scolded him for only paying attention to the Charlottesville, and completely neglecting the Mosque bombing in Minnesota that occurred just over a week ago.

I’m not going to share my personal opinions on his statements, but I will say that I find it refreshing to see this many people, especially those who have power such as politicians, calling Trump out on his inconsistencies. We cannot only condemn terrorism that has been acted upon us by others; it is important to recognize domestic terrorism. We, unfortunately, have a history of acts of violence against our own people. So to hear our commander in chief, our international representative, our national role model (to an extent) ignore domestic terrorism is disgraceful, but to see so many writers, performers, politicians, etc. call him out with such rigor is a welcome change to people seeming complacent or merely shocked his statements.

The Power of a Great Read

I know it’s been a while since I’ve written anything in a while, some of that’s due to my busy summer and some of it is due to not knowing what to write about. So, to get back into the swing of things, let me tell you all about a book I just finished by Fredrik Backman called My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry.

 

The novel follows Elsa, an almost-eight-year-old living in Sweden. She doesn’t have many friends and is bullied mercilessly in school. Her grandmother was always her support system and her superhero, telling her fairytales and taking her to the Land-of-Almost-Awake, a kingdom where imagination rules and everyone is a little bit different. Sadly, for Elsa, her parents are divorced, she’ll have a new half-sibling soon which makes her feel even less important, and unbeknownst to her, her grandmother has cancer and does not have much time left.

I’ll try to avoid giving too many spoilers but I’ll try to give some context. Unable to return to the Land-of-Almost-Awake, Elsa is sent on a treasure hunt by her grandmother to deliver letters to the neighbors in their house. The consistent theme among them being that they are apologies from her grandmother to each of the residents in the house and Elsa then learns the backstory to each of them. She discovers that some people are not “total shits,” and helps many get through the losses that shape them, realizing that many of the neighbors are also characters in her grandmother’s fairytales.

Slowly, Elsa makes friends with the neighbors and eventually becomes less lonely, as every almost-eight-year old should have both superheroes and friends. She teams up with her neighbors against the mysterious and threatening shadow that has been hunting Elsa since her granny passed away, coming out victorious in the end.

 

I thoroughly enjoyed the novel, Backman has a way with words and emotions that make you see what his characters were feeling and see what they were feeling. Throughout the book, I wanted to be friends with the characters, empathize with them and help them through their struggle. Backman takes the reader on an emotional journey, investigating loss, anger, and forgiveness as Elsa makes her own journey delivering her grandmother’s letters.

Other than a few passages that I had to reread, I do not have complaints about either the writing style or the plot. I was kept guessing throughout the story, very engaged and intrigued and certainly never bored. As someone who has always loved stories, it was an interesting and heartwarming story about the power of stories and how they bring people together. I highly recommend this novel to anyone wanting a good read that blends fictional reality and fantasy, and I’m definitely not sorry to praise it so highly.

Missing the Point… Book vs. Movie

I was sitting in my class the other day, listening to celebratory speeches. One girl, a very talented speaker, has a power point; she turns it on and it’s a photo for the Netfix show Thirteen Reasons Why and says “This is not suicide.” How poignant, I was instantly reeled into her speech, the girl continued saying that the media needs to stop “romanticizing suicide,” now I’ve seen these arguments before, particularly online, and as much as I wanted to continue agreeing with her speech I couldn’t.

Now I’ll agree, that there are generally some issues that arise when suicides are highly publicized. While I was in high school, a young man in my community committed suicide and I’m not  sure if it was the publicity he got or other kids were simply seriously shaken up, but a number of other suicides followed shortly after. In fact there have been studies that have found a link between highly publicized suicides and so called “copy-cat” cases.

But I digress, I’d like to share my previously held private opinions about suicide in Thirteen Reasons Why. Something I’m sure some are unaware of is that it started as a novel by Jay Asher first published in 2007; and honestly I think the book is better, the show took a lot of creative liberties. But if the book’s been around ten years, why did I only hear about it in the last year or so, and why did many people not even realize that it is a book? I think it boils down to the fact that film is so much more sensational in that it doesn’t make the viewer work as hard–with a book you have to mentally create scenes, what characters look like, and how they interact, with a movie, all of that has been done for you.

So when people saw Thirteen Reasons Why and saw Hannah Baker cutting her wrists, it caused a much bigger uproar than when people read about Hannah Baker over-dosing on pills–it was a stronger, more violent image. As a result, more people spoke out about and against the film when most readers stayed fairly quiet about it.

In the back of the novel, there is a section in which Asher gives a little Q&A about the book–why he wrote it, some of the thoughts that went into it, et cetera. From this you can see that while suicide is the driving force of the book, it’s not necessarily the most important thing about it. Interestingly enough, there are “special features” after the series on Netflix as well in which the directors and producers say somewhat similar things about the plot and the characters as the author did.

Both the book’s Q&A and the show’s “special features” stressed that the important thing was not that she killed herself and we need to be aware of the signs because there might be other “Hannah Bakers” out there. The “moral,” if you will, of Asher’s story is that you never know how you affect others’ lives. Hannah didn’t see that she was important to Clay, her parents, anyone really; and no one on the tapes saw how their actions affected Hannah. Those characters that she “blamed” did not take away her agency in suicide, they did not force her, it was still her choice. But people who haven’t read the book or even watched the movie and only read comments about it online might think that’s the case. Not one review article I saw said anything about that message; they just focused on the idea that Hannah was stupid and selfish.

I wish there were more media coverage of comparisons between the book and movie, I think that would have given people a better appreciation for what Asher was trying to communicate. Overall, I recommend the book, especially the tenth anniversary edition–it includes the original ending in which Hannah Baker survives. I’m not going to tell anyone to not watch the show, or to avoid articles about show or movie, I’m not even going to tell people to stop “romanticizing suicide.” I just hope that we are all more aware of the implications of our own actions and approach media about touchy topics like suicide with a more open mindset.

Media and Me…for Now

Let me tell you a slightly embarrassing story. Growing up I had many career aspirations, but the one that stuck with me the longest was being a spy. I loved James Bond and Scooby-Doo, so much so that I made my own little spy-kit and pretended to solve mysteries all the time. I would write my own mystery stories and would read even more, one novel I came across, Blowing My Cover: My Life as a CIA Spy gave me more hope for this dream. Then one day my sophomore year of high school, I suddenly realized that I didn’t want to be a spy anymore and panicked because I no longer had a plan. Lots of premature worry and a creative writing class later, I saw myself as being able to use my writing skills in the future.

While I always enjoyed all the elements of speech writing and performing, which lead me to pursue communications in college, I wanted more. I’d always been fascinated by journalism; shoot, instead of playing kickball in middle school I would pretend to be a sports announcer and commentate the game. So when I first started taking an intro to journalism class (which prompted me to create this blog and share it with you lovely people) I found myself even more excited about news and the media.

In both my journalism and communication classes, I’ve learned the importance of critical reading and verification. Attending these classes at CU has given me a new perspective of looking at the media; it’s hard to think that I used to just see news programs as basic reporting. Now I know more about all the ethical choices that were made about the material being presented; I know more about how and why media outlets, especially social media platforms, make the choices that they do. I have been able to see that while I try to limit my digital footprint, my information matters to someone and that anyone and anything has the ability to be newsworthy.

I can’t say for sure that I will be a journalist. I can say that I will continue writing—whether it’s on this blog, in a book, an article, or even for a news company. I do hope to continue this type of work because I’ve found a lot of joy and satisfaction in finding new or even old information, but finding an interesting way to share it. I hope that by my continuing to learn about journalism and the media, if and when I find myself in a more professional setting that I will be able to apply these lessons. It’s exciting to think that I could be part of such a dynamic and complicated aspect of our society, and that I could have some influence on its future.

Should We Teach ‘Bots Some Tricks?

Some say that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but teaching young dogs tricks in general is super difficult—I would know, my dogs don’t listen to me at all unless I’m bribing them with treats. But what do dogs have to do with the news? Well nothing, but teaching a puppy a trick is kind of like teaching a machine to do something; it needs very specific instructions and there’s oftentimes a lot of trial and error. I’ve heard people say that we should let machines make decisions, they don’t have prior conceptions about things, it’s like they’re existing behind a veil of ignorance. But researchers are trying to teach machines to recognize words and pictures but have found them to still be unreliable.

Similar things are happening when we try to have machines make ethical decisions for us. A machine can’t really be taught to apply Kant’s categorical imperative or Aristotle’s golden mean, and while a machine may technically have a set of loyalties like the case with Tesla’s self-driving cars, a machine is incapable of using the Potter Box tool for making moral decisions. If we were to have machines write our news stories and be responsible for reporting them, I don’t think there would be a very positive response. Sure, a computer given information about an event may be able to be slightly more objective and “just report the facts,” but how is the computer going to receive the information? Even if drones were used to collect data and essentially make reports on things, the computer could not actually make sense of what’s happening. People would need to write the code for the computer to follow and thusly write a story.

Since it’s clear that we can’t solely rely on machines to make the news, I don’t think it can be fair to argue that machines ought to be responsible for regulating and filtering it. A computer might see imperfect news as “fake news” and flag it, but if there’s one or two misprints, that doesn’t make an article fake. While I see the merits in having technology try to flag fake news, we can’t wholly rely on them. It’s still the readers’ responsibilities to make the decision to read or not to read an article. If anything, it should be a mutual relationship between technology and human kind—an algorithm might flag an article, but the person must make an informed decision on their own. If they aren’t happy with what they read, it’s not fair to blame the platform they found it for their reading it.

I agree that it sucks to feel duped into reading by a machine, uh hello: clickbate. But some person somewhere made the clickbate, not the machine. People need to realize that and take responsibility for their decisions. That being said, I also don’t agree that algorithms should be in charge of making decisions about what we are presented with. No, I probably don’t want to read an article that celebrates a politician I find nauseating, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be able to see it. If your newsfeed is purely blue or explicitly red that does not allow you to be well informed. Biased newsfeeds lead to bubbles of thought that leave little room for critical thinking. So please, stop blaming Facebook for the election, for sharing fake news—take some responsibility and read critically.

Look at the News Industry Growing Up!

I heard once that it’s more important to do a job you love and make it a career than do a job and hate going into work every day. So when people say that journalism is a lost art and that it’s insane to want to be a journalist, I say calm down and stop crushing people’s dreams!

Sure, it’s difficult if your line of work is dependent on other people—people are so unpredictable and their interests change faster than the hands on a clock. Just because some article says that to be a newspaper journalist is the worst job to have, doesn’t mean it’s true. Sites and surveys like those only focus on raw data: how much money one makes, how many hours on average are spent working, or even how much individuals report stress. In my experience, these surveys never ask people why they got into that career path and what they love about it. I know that I have plenty of friends who thrive in high stress situations but still love it, so maybe journalists are a little more capable at handling stress than people in other positions.

Now the fact that journalists love what they do despite not being well rewarded for it doesn’t mean that their enthusiasm alone will be able to save the industry. We as a society are definitely moving more toward primarily digital reading—and that’s with everything from books to newspapers. The nostalgic feeling of thumbing through a paper with a nice, strong mug of coffee next to you is slowly being overshadowed by scrolling through newsfeeds with a mediocre and either slightly too sweet or way to bland cup of Starbucks while waiting for the bus. But why are we moving toward this more fast paced style of getting the news—it’s cheaper for the news companies and more accessible for us.

So what can companies do to try and make up for the profits they’ve lost in the past year? Well like many newspapers, local news companies can try implementing metered paywalls, a payment system that allows for some free access to material while charging for other amenities. Or, it’s also possible that smaller companies could change the way they present the news: go from a daily to a weekly or bi weekly, use a different delivery system, or try promoting their paper to a more specific target group like a local high school and build up interest from that smaller group.

However, it’s important to not forget that interest in news is on the rise. Why? Because the current administration churns out ridiculousness faster than the New York Times can print its daily newspapers! With all of the executive orders, golf trips, tirades, and other shenanigans coming out of Capitol Hill, interest in bigger news companies has been on the rise. Local newspapers still face some difficulty, perhaps if they produce similar stories to their national counterparts more interest will be produced as well.

7 Inmates in 11 Days?

“Off with their heads!” may simply be words uttered by the evil Queen of Hearts in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, but it almost feels like that is the exact sentiment held toward seven inmates on death row in Arkansas. Last week would have been the beginning of a small window of eleven days in which seven death row inmates would have been executed, as pushed by Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson. However, two judges, Wendell Griffen, who has been out of the public eye since being seen at a protest against the executions but is “morally opposed to the death penalty,” and Kristine Baker both blocked the order.

Hutchinson said that it was his “duty” as governor to ensure that the executions took place, citing the approaching expiration of one of the lethal injection drugs was at the end of the month. The Republican Attorney General Leslie Rutledge backed up the governor saying that her office is committed to carrying out the executions. However, there have been many reservations about the motion; for example, Arkansas hasn’t executed anyone in twelve years and on top of that use of Midazolam, the drug in question has been known to be improperly administered in a number of other executions. Some doctors and even former wardens warn against this “execution through assembly.” In fact, Oklahoma put in place a rule that there ought to be at least seven days between executions so as to prevent extra stress for the staff. Additionally, the Department of Correction has struggled to recruit enough witnesses: Arkansas law states that there must be at least six at every execution.

While I do not agree with many of Hutchinson’s politics, some of his ideas sound fairly solid, for example he voted for alternate sentencing rather than increasing the number of prisons and voted to eliminate the Estate Tax. It’s interesting to note too that he appears to be vehemently against abortions, stating that human life begins at conception. If he proclaims that the sanctity and protection of life is that important, I find it ludicrous that he is pushing for the quick execution of seven men, four of whom are mentally ill or impaired. It was difficult to find many positive reviews of Rutledge’s work, while she has certainly had experience in the legal field, some think that the amount is a little suspicious. According to the Arkansas Times, between 2001 and 2014 she held at least nine jobs, only two of which lasted about two years—in fact, after she left the Arkansas Department of Human Services, they put her on a “do not rehire” list because of misconduct.

The politics of Hutchinson and Rutledge aside, I personally have found issue around the controversy of Midazolam, the drug used as an anesthetic. The fact that its history in lethal injections is clouded with issues is worrisome, and the use of its expiration date sounds like a cop-out. In fact, McKesson, a supplier of the drug in question, wanted to be sure Arkansas wouldn’t use it in lethal injections, even asking for the drug to be returned, but the state did not observe their request. Furthermore, the fact that many of the men at the mercy of this ruling are either mentally ill, impaired, or experienced abuse as a child is shocking—a number of their attorneys expressed concern that the method of execution might cause excessive pain and that the short time frame allowed more room for harmful mistakes and prevented them from preparing an adequate defense. Given that, this decision seemed hastily made and not adequately considered.