COVERING THE UNTHINKABLE BY THINKING ABOUT IT

by James D. Wolf, Jr on August 21, 2012

There’s a new staple in media coverage of mass shootings: stories with experts chastising the media for the way it covers such events. As journalists, it’s our way of showing that we’re self-aware and sympathetic, even though we’re essentially hypocrites when it comes to following those experts’ advice.

But if these crimes are influenced by the coverage of previous ones, then interviews with experts are adding to the problem by stressing initial notoriety instead of what happens over time. The perpetrators of the Columbine, Colorado, school shooting expected to have a movie made about them; in a video detailing what they intended to do, they expressed their desire to have Steven Spielberg direct. But can you name either of the shooters without Googling them, or give the exact date of the Columbine shooting? Can you remember the name of the more recent 2007 Virginia Tech killer? How many perpetrators’ names from this year’s acts of violence can you recall immediately? Those closest to the tragedies will never forget the names, but for most of us, they become footnotes to our fears.

That doesn’t absolve the media of any responsibility for influencing the perpetrators, and more importantly, it doesn’t mitigate the damage we do to our credibility in the ways that we cover such tragedies in the electronic age. We need to rethink both how we report on these events and the relevance of journalistic conventions that began in the late nineteenth century.

Journalistic culture since then has emphasized getting the exclusive story, or if not that, then finding the telling facts and photos that the competition’s reporters don’t have the wits, sources, or intestinal fortitude to obtain. Getting a breaking story quickly is important, but put this tradition into the era of 24-hour news channels and you get desperation. Not only do television producers want what other news outlets don’t have, they have to fill hours in a medium where the average attention span is presumed to last less than three minutes. And they keep adding information to keep viewers tuning in, because news is a way to market advertising.

Television is the medium of choice for most and still dictates how coverage happens in news radio and newspapers, which have joined the rush for facts-in-volume through the Internet. It is “who’s first” rather than “who’s best,” and reporters resemble not archeologists or detectives uncovering information but fetishists obsessing on the trivial. This rush creates sloppiness and mistakes get made, often in major broadcasts and publications. A. J. Focht, a young man who survived the July 20 Aurora, Colorado, movie theater shooting, noted that ABC continued to air bad information up to five days later in an interview with a victim’s loved ones — interview subjects who could’ve told reporters the correct facts if they’d been asked. “Even after being called out on The Daily Show, ABC fails to check the facts to their reports before airing them,” Focht wrote.

Mistakes don’t just affect our credibility for getting facts right; they also affect our credibility for telling stories clearly and providing answers. After last year’s disappearance of 19-year-old Amanda Bach and the subsequent discovery of her body in Porter County, Indiana, we in the local media spent almost as much time debunking the Chicago media’s speculations and erroneous statements as we spent writing about the effects of the story on our community.

This isn’t to say that news media shouldn’t cover these events. The Constitution protects a free press because the media is there for the public good; people have a right to know what’s happening in their communities, whether related to politics, economics, or public safety.

But good reporting is about clear thinking. It’s a tenet of journalism that when you’re stuck on how to write a story, the first question you ask yourself is, “What does this mean to my reader (or listener or viewer)?” Enlarging photos of the suspects or repeatedly playing old videos of them doesn’t offer anything to the public good or understanding. The media also doesn’t need to replace intelligent analysis from people who have insights with interviews of people who have agendas, such as gun control advocates and National Rifle Association defenders. For most people, it’s obvious how such special interest groups will spin a situation.

Decisions may be difficult to make in the heat of the moment, but sometimes asking what something means or what is the right thing to do helps. Consider two incidents:

  • In 2007, NBC decided to broadcast a video that the Virginia Tech murderer sent of himself, rather than give it to police or discuss their “exclusive” with law enforcement first.
  • When the New York Times and Washington Post published Theodore Kaczynski’s manifesto in 1995, they did so only after long and considered deliberation — a process that included the FBI and was predicated on Kaczynski’s claim that he would not kill again if it were published in a newspaper he respected.

Which of these would the Founding Fathers consider in the interest of the public good? We need to ask ourselves such questions as we ask police, survivors, and experts the usual questions. That’s how we retain our focus.

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James D. Wolf Jr. is a correspondent for The Post-Tribune in the Northwest Indiana suburbs of Chicago and has been a journalist for 25 years. He currently covers a court beat as part of his duties.

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