The question came from a high school journalism teacher on the final day of a two-week program at Arizona State University.
“What is the most under-covered story today?” she asked.
There were many moments over the last four or five decades when the answers to the same question were obvious, moments when the news media at large were late to the table recognizing emerging stories.
Our eyes weren’t fully open to the civil rights revolution until there was blood in the streets of Watts and Cleveland and other cities, until four children were killed in a Birmingham church and dogs were turned loose against fellow Americans marching for simple justice in Selma, before three young men were left dead in Philadelphia, Miss.
Students were killed on college campuses before most of us understood the force of the rage against the Vietnam War that had exploded across the nation.
Most of us missed the story of the building women’s movement, missed the story of the rising threat of drugs in our society, missed the conservative wave that rolled in with Ronald Reagan and years later the emergence of the tea party, missed the crisis of health care and senior care, and certainly were late reporting on AIDS until it took away some of our most talented and brightest citizens. And that list, obviously, is incomplete.
The news media essentially played catch-up. Some did it well, some not so well; some reached out for diversity on their staffs to help broaden their sensitivities and understanding of our changing demographics, some did not; some adopted an even stronger commitment to civil discourse and civic life, that intersection where we discover the clarity in the life of a community, some did not.
So what is the answer to the teacher’s question? Perhaps we can find it in the words of two prominent leaders.
Pope Francis in a recent homily warned of a growing culture that makes us think only of ourselves. “We have fallen into globalized indifference,” he said. “We have become used to the suffering of others: it doesn’t affect me; it doesn’t concern me; it’s none of my business.”
Then it was reported that Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, in response to a question from a Sacramento high school teacher concerning the biggest threat to democracy, replied, “Indifference.” And he went on to say that there “is a sense that the only important thing is the here and now. It’s almost narcissistic.”
The pope and the justice answered the journalism teacher’s question. The most under-covered story is the indifference toward and the absence of empathy and concern for the have-nots and the gap that is growing each day between them and the haves in our world today.
We live in a world in which millions struggle under the poverty line, millions are homeless and go to sleep at night hungry; a world in which so many are willing to shred the safety nets even though that action would shatter the bones of hope for untold numbers of children; a world filled with incivility in which we find it easier each day to disparage those with whom we disagree.
It is a world where hatred has too often found a harbor in too many hearts, and too many times we find ourselves asking: Where is the moral center? It’s a world where the echoes of violence sound loudly in our lives, from Newtown to Tucson, from Boston to Aurora.
A world of indifference, an under-covered story to be explored, a story where journalists can bring light where there is darkness and truth where there is falsity.
Let’s leave the last word for Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize recipient, author, philosopher and teacher.
In a Parade magazine article several years ago, he wrote these words:
“Indifference to evil is the enemy of good, for indifference is the enemy of everything that exalts the honor of man. We fight indifference through education; we diminish it through compassion; The most efficient remedy? Memory.
“To remember means to recognize a time other than the present; to remember means to acknowledge the possibility of a dialogue. In recalling an event I provoke its rebirth in me. In evoking a face, I place myself in relationship to it. In remembering a landscape, I oppose it to the walls that imprison me. The memory of an ancient joy or defeat is proof that nothing is definitive, nor is it irrevocable. To live through a catastrophe is bad; to forget it is worse.”
Gregory Favre is the former executive editor of The Sacramento Bee and retired vice president of news for the McClatchy Company.