Tackling worldwide issues requires a new definition of proximity

COVID-19 tested our ability to care for strangers, and this test will only continue as we face climate change

I scoured the internet for the name of the first man to die of COVID-19. I learned that he was a 61-year-old man from Wuhan, China. I learned that he was a regular at the live animal market, he had previously been diagnosed with abdominal tumours and chronic liver disease, but I couldn’t find his name. He’s a number; he was patient zero. His heart failed on Jan. 9, 2020, and since then, there have been over 5.5 million COVID-19 deaths worldwide.

As consumers of news, there is always a disconnect when reading about events happening overseas.

These stories lack one of the seven ideals in newsworthy journalism: proximity. If you want people to read your articles, you need to report on issues that affect your reader or their communities directly. A man died of a virus in China, why should I care?

At this point, the answer to that question should be clear.

After that first death in Wuhan, it only took three weeks for the World Health Organization to declare a global health emergency, on Jan. 30, 2020.

Every single person on the planet was affected by COVID-19 in one way or another, and as the world becomes more globalized, there will be more of these worldwide issues that affect all of us. What we thought of as “proximate” is no longer relevant.

The problem we’re facing is that these new types of global issues are blurring geographical borders, but we are all still inclined to care more about issues directly affecting our family, friends, and neighbours. It’s hard to care about strangers overseas.

In international news reporting, we need to be connecting readers to issues by fabricating a sense of proximity. This would lead to better global awareness and a deeper understanding of events that will inevitably affect us all.

Personal narratives can be used to “reduce” distance and diminish the disconnected feeling we get from reading about foreign issues.

Having journalists report on people’s lives in a more intimate way can make it easier for audiences to empathize with the subjects — even those from far away, and even when they are not directly affected.

About two months into the pandemic, NBC News published a story about 60 lives in 60 days, which told the stories of some of the first American victims of COVID-19. They outlined other hardships the victims overcame in their lives and provided testimonies from loved ones. While this project didn’t receive an overwhelming number of likes on social media, the comments posted in response were genuine. Strangers were mourning these deaths.

However, in some cases, cultural or political barriers don’t allow us to gain the insight we need to make these connections.

Obviously, reporting operates differently in China.

Whether the country was trying to downplay the virus in January 2020 as they did with SARS in 2003, or whether the government’s official statements were delayed due to its complex, rigid system, it is possible that patient zero’s name purposely wasn’t shared. But not sharing his name was a disservice to the rest of the world.

If you had told me he left behind a wife or kids, it would’ve made me think of deaths that occurred in my own family. It would’ve brought about a fleeting wave of sadness, and it would’ve sparked an emotional connection.

Award-winning writer Walt Harrington wrote that more intimate journalism stories open “windows on our universal human struggle,” — and death and mourning are inevitable for all of us; it’s relatable. Sure, patient zero’s personal details wouldn’t have been all that relevant in reporting the spread of the virus, but readers abroad would’ve been able to connect.

COVID-19 isn’t the only ongoing global issue. Climate change is creeping up on all of us. And I mean all of us.

Developing countries have been suffering for decades from earthquakes, tsunamis, and other natural disasters as a result of global warming. And if that’s not enough to make you care, the recent floods in British Columbia are an indicator that these problems are not as far away as they may seem.

Sound familiar? The virus once felt far away too.

COP26, the most recent UN climate change summit, is one example of a collaborative effort — however flawed it may be. After 26 gatherings, the Earth should be in better shape, but what we do benefit from is the exposure to those people affected by climate change.

James Cadet, the Minister of Environment of Haiti, spoke in French about how their lives are “intimately linked” and their economies are “interdependent.” It doesn’t matter how far away Haiti may seem; COVID-19 wasn’t bothered by geographical borders, and climate change won’t be either.

Haiti is a vulnerable country and undoubtedly feels the intense consequences of climate change. Hearing first-hand about the hardships faced from a Haitian native creates a new type of proximity in which listeners feel closer to and empathize with the speaker.

Some journalists have turned to different forms of media to fabricate this sense of proximity.

Mia Lindgren, Professor and Dean at Swinburne University of Technology, discusses the effectiveness of audio media in storytelling. Mediums like radio and podcasts create proximity with the human voice. Hearing the warmth in the voices of strangers makes it easier to relate and sympathize than it would be through a piece of text.

Ear Hustle, a podcast which is recorded and posted by current prison inmates, is a perfect example of how technology has made it much easier to keep up with people beyond our own geographical and social borders.

Listeners can feel the pain, sadness, or guilt in the voices of the podcast host and guests. Audio storytelling achieves the element of proximity outlined in the principles of successful, newsworthy journalism.

Not knowing the name of COVID-19’s patient zero created even more distance in a situation where it was already difficult to connect. What if he wasn’t just a faceless victim? What if we had the opportunity to feel for him more deeply, 11,000 kilometers away?

If Wuhan wasn’t reported on, the situation could’ve been very different once COVID-19 reached North America. If there wasn’t communication across various nations, it’s possible that vaccines would not have been developed as quickly as they were. People need to be aware of events happening internationally – that’s how solutions are found.

This lesson learned from our pandemic response can be applied to every sort of global issue. Solutions will require worldwide collaboration, so again geographical proximity becomes irrelevant.

The Montreal Protocol is the most impressive example of this much needed communication and collaboration, as it is the only UN treaty to ever be ratified by all 197 UN-recognized countries. This collective agreement to protect the ozone layer came into effect in 1989. Among its notable achievements, it has led to the phaseout of the production and consumption of 98 per cent of ozone depleting substances. Global cooperation led to fixing global-scale problems — weird!

The traditional definition of proximity is no longer relevant in deciding what is “newsworthy.” As our problems get bigger, we have to widen the scope of our concern accordingly. Journalists have the power to create a feeling of proximity through their storytelling and make us care — something the world desperately needs as we face unprecedented, worldwide issues. The stories of those already affected by climate change must be shared, because we saw what happened when the world couldn’t sympathize with patient zero.


Graphics by James Fay

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