Karen Chen (BSJ14) has won the 2014 Walter S. and Syrena M. Howell Essay Competition. Chen will receive the annual competition’s $4,000 prize for a Medill student’s analysis in no more than 2,500 words of propaganda or distortion of the truth in journalism.
Chen’s essay, “The problem with gawking,” analyzed the truth behind a leaked security video of an anonymous woman wearing nothing but a thong destroying a McDonald’s restaurant. The video went viral. But few of the many media that carried the video included the full story: Sandra Suarez, the woman shown, said she was experiencing a bipolar episode and barely recalled it. Doctors found no evidence of drug or alcohol intoxication.
Chen criticized the irresponsible practice of publishing news “without attempting to interview involved parties or presenting a substantial account of the circumstance.” She worried aloud about media representations of mental illness. She questioned reporting that is “without empathy or care for the people in a story.”
Chen tracked the media’s use of the leaked security video as it made its way through newspapers, broadcast outlets and other media. She noted a trend toward more mainstream media posting outrageous videos and tweets without context “just to attract page views and clicks.” The media are part of a society that is emphasizing gawking, without understanding the real story. “We are training ourselves to gawk, not to see,” Chen concluded.
The Howell Essay Competition judges applauded Chen’s research and well-written reporting about the original distortion by Gawker and the distortion’s movement through the media food chain. Chen put a human face on the issue of distorted sensationalism taking the place of accurate news reporting.
Medill faculty members Stephan Garnett, Loren Ghiglione and Patti Wolter judged the 2014 Howell Essay Competition.