If you switched on the news, picked up the paper or logged online this weekend, you saw the biggest story was the death of Kanye West’s mother.
While this is a personal tragedy in West’s life – and don’t get us wrong; it is a personal tragedy, and we only feel sympathy for West and his family – it should not be news. National news needs to address public tragedies, not personal ones.
Hurricane Katrina was a public tragedy. The Oklahoma City bombing was a public tragedy. The Columbia crash was a public tragedy.
All of those events occurred in very public settings and were affected by areas of our government, which needed to be held accountable. The actions the officials took in the wakes of those events affected all Americans. While it was individuals who lost their lives, more than just their families mourned the loss. Those losses were public and merited national coverage.
The deaths of Mother Teresa, Princess Diana and President John F. Kennedy were all public tragedies. They might have been individuals, but they were as widely known in life as they were in death. Their stories had already touched people, and the mass media had made them known to the public. People felt as if they knew something about the character and personality of these individuals, and, therefore, mourned their departure from earth.
Even the death of personalities such as Johnny Carson and Jimi Hendrix merited national coverage – maybe they weren’t changing lives through charity or making laws that affected the country, but they were widely known and famous in their own right. Their lives had an impact on the public, as did their deaths.
West’s mother? A personal tragedy. Again, a tragedy nonetheless, but not a public one.
When a child is lost, it is a personal tragedy. When a man dies in an auto accident, it is personal. The media often latches onto these stories and sensationalizes them, but outside of their local communities, this should not be news. As journalism students, we are taught news values: Literally, how to determine if something is news. There’s plenty that happens on a daily basis that affects individuals, their social circles, their local communities, etc. How do the media decide if that tragedy is one that extends to the general public?
Four of the biggest factors are timeliness (when it happened), prominence (who it happened to), proximity (where it happened) and impact (who it affects).
When it comes to a tragedy, the main factor should be impact: Who exactly this news affects. Does the general public benefit from the story? Does it change how their spend their day? Would they know who the person in question is if it wasn’t for the media?
If the story can be generalized to the public, then it can have impact. For example, there is speculation that West’s mother died from complications of cosmetic surgery. If that ends up being true, then it could be a public matter by bringing to light the dangers these kinds of surgeries can entail.
But until then, the media should leave personal tragedies where they belong – to individuals.
The above editorial is the consensus opinion of the Daily Kent Stater editorial board.