Saturday, December 15, 2012

The media: Invasive, or integral?

OK, enough about guns for now. Let's talk about the media.

It's popular these days to chastise the media for allegedly glorifying the assailant of a shooting. These critics claim that the shooters seek notoriety, and the press is complicit in that, so no wonder these shootings continue.

Another complaint is that journalists are being overly intrusive, exemplified by the "eat a dick" meme that's gone viral.

In a sense, I get all that. A tragedy has occurred. Children are dead. Reporters can be insensitive and downright banal — I hate the "how does it feel" question as much as anybody. But I hate the question not because it was invasive but because, having been a journalist myself, I think it brings nothing to the conversation. We all know how the grieving families feel. But as far as attempting to construct a story, I can't fault journalists for doing that. That's their job. And it often sucks for them as much as for anyone else. I always found cultivating sources to be the hardest part of reporting, because the percentage of people willing to talk to you on the record is small in general, and even lower in the wake of tragedy. At the same time, the immediate aftermath is when pressure to produce is strongest. 

The very people who applaud the "eat a dick" meme are also the ones who can't get enough coverage, and aren't happy to hear that there's no new information. Hence, journalists often find themselves flailing for angles and sources, sometimes in opportunistic ways that probably make themselves cringe. That's part of the job, the one that tends to make or break news reporters. Being told some variation of "eat a dick" starts to wear on you after about the 15th time. The journalist is out one source and a chunk of time and still has to file a story to appease the glued audience. Somehow. And they do it, sometimes several times a day, even if they feel at times like one of the torch-bearing masses.

Imagine how much harder that process would be if the media adopted the policy of not disclosing information about assailants. This is one sentiment I can't get behind at all. First off, the press is complicit in nothing. Most reputable outlets are far too busy finding, assigning, writing and dispatching stories to care about some side agenda. (And when they do bother with that, it's about profit, not who they can make famous.) Second, the press has a duty to share the facts at its disposal. That's not just responsible reporting, it's in fact the entire purpose of a free press. Sensationalism does occur (like I said, profit), but sharing the killer's name, photo and known circumstances is not that; such information is vital to fully understanding the incident. The press must paint as complete a picture as they possibly can; anything less is shirking that responsibility. If you choose to divert your eyes to one aspect of the story, that's your prerogative; but journalists cannot and should not do that.

As tempting as it is to want to remake the media in a more emotionally soft image, it cannot and should not be done. Journalists are not the bad guys, and bad guys don't deserve obscurity just because they're unpleasant. Skewing toward silence won't make the media better and it won't make tragedies any less tragic. But knowing all the facts just might teach us something that makes the country better going forward. 

We can hope.


Charlotte said...

No doubt you have a valid argument. I think where the problem really comes in is that today we have so many TV channels with so many 24 hour news channels that we feel like we're being inundated with the same info over and over and over again. It really would be comical if it weren't so tragic.

Ian McGibboney said...

And no one can settle on what the facts are. Some straight up make up their own.