“They’ll say ‘that’s horrible’ and then go back to eating their dinners.”
The scene is the Rwandan genocide of 1993, portrayed in the award-winning film Hotel Rwanda. The speaker is an American journalist, a videographer removed from the unfolding massacre by the lens of a camera. Before the film's even halfway over, he’s gone, ushered onto a bus with windows full of staring white faces like his, muttering, “I’m so ashamed”.
His words haunt me. Watching that film, I felt the same shame, the same guilt, the same anger of helplessness. Could I be just like him: an aspiring reporter idealizing the value of journalism, agonizingly affected and yet apathetic in action?
And I wondered – what is my responsibility to the news I share through writing, and perhaps even more importantly, the news I receive?
The same day that I watched that film, I read Time magazine, purposefully turning first to the cover story with the apocalyptic title “Syria’s Descent into Madness”.
I read in disbelief of unimaginable horrors – civil war, massacres, cannibalism – that echoed the Rwandan genocide 20 years before - and exclaimed, like the American journalist: “How horrible”.
But then my friend arrived, and I set down the article and turned back to my apple crisp, although I wasn't as hungry as before.
Ignorance is bliss, as the saying goes, because with knowledge comes responsibility – responsibility to care and to act. We all have responsibility – not only those of us who report, record, and make sense of what happens in our world to share with others – but even more importantly, all of us who consume the news. Because I realize that no matter how thorough the reporting, no matter how sensitive the word choice, no matter how concerned the writer, journalism when met with apathy is meaningless.
In this day and age, we are overwhelmed with news. Every day we hear of suffering beyond imagining, and although we feel a turn of our stomachs, a twinge of guilt, perhaps even offer a fleeting prayer, we’re already moving on to the next story. In the information glut of modern globalization, there is a seductive danger that we are losing our capacity to care - perhaps because we must in order to survive.
But the reality is that we need to learn to live as human beings in a shrinking globe where we are continually growing close enough to touch each other’s worlds. I need to learn what my responsibility is to the news of the world, and how I should live in light of it.
I know I can’t carry the burden of every death in every shadowed corner of the world, nor can I help everyone in need. Lying in bed that night after I watched the film, I felt my own smallness, my own helplessness, my own ineptitude. I realized that nothing I can do, nothing I can write, can truly stop wars, heal hatred, or erase evil.
But I also can’t let my inevitable limitations be an excuse for the comfort of apathy. For if everyone only accepted what seemed possible, then change would never exist.
“We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” ― Martin Luther King Jr.