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How About Some Media Control?

12/18/2012 08:11 am ET | Updated Feb 17, 2013
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We're all talking about the same thing today. We are, indeed, having a "national conversation." The subject is tragic, which is why it has everyone so focused. Another shooting rampage, another town consumed by grief, all played out on the nation's television screens. But precisely because everyone's talking about it, I find that I don't have much to add to the main discussion. All I have are a few fragments that are mostly peripheral in nature, and mostly to do with the news media.

To begin with, I have to add my voice to the rising chorus demanding a little "media control" (I'll leave the gun control arguments to others, at least for today). While I'm a First Amendment enthusiast myself, I can't see any valid reason for any media outlet to interview a 6-year-old after such a tragedy. None. No valid editorial or journalistic reason whatsoever. The public's vaunted "right to know" doesn't even begin to cover it. Stop interviewing small children -- even with their parents' permission. It's exploitative and it's not journalism. It is rank sensationalism. So stop it. Getting a 7-year-old to express his feelings on camera should become a thing of the past in American journalism -- like the public naming of rape victims, for example. Ethical standards change and get better over time. This is one area that needs some immediate attention.

There is an excellent blog currently up at The Huffington Post that explains why interviewing children should be made either illegal or at the very least cause editors and producers to lose their job for this sort of behavior. Blogger Kim Simon was 14 years old when she lived through a tragedy at her school. Here's what she has to say to the media:

You were there. You, with your enormous video cameras. You, with your microphones poking into the bubble of grief that grew bigger as we waited for our parents to find us. You, with your horrible questions about what had happened, had we known Mike, had we seen anything? No parents there yet, just children. No teachers, just children. And you.

Some of us screamed at you to leave us alone. Some of us answered your sick questions, because you were the grown-ups, and we were the kids. I don't even know how you got there so fast, before our parents, before anyone else could swoop us back inside and ask you to leave. But there you were, with your vans and your lights, asking us how it felt to know that another child had been killed. How it felt to be scared. How it felt to wonder about the names of everyone else, to be desperately hoping for more information, while feeling terrified about what the truth would really be.

Later in her piece, she likens the media to "rabid hungry wolves." Anyone not convinced the media should be barred from interviewing children who have lived through horrible tragedies needs to read Simon's piece -- she says it better than any I've read so far.

Of course, I am saddened by the school shooting, but I also would like to express regret to the people of Newtown, Conn., for the media circus currently taking place in their town. This is something that the American public almost never sees, unless a "big story" takes place in their hometown. In fact, the only times the media circus becomes part of the story (or is even shown on camera, for that matter) is when there is nothing else to show and little else to talk about. High-profile trials spring to mind, such as any court case involving Michael Jackson, for instance. Outside of this subcategory, the first rule of any television cameraman is "don't show the other channels' cameras." The media is supposed to be presented as invisible to the public.

But they're not. Far from it. Anyone living in Newtown at the moment has likely seen cameras all over the place, disturbing what is supposed to be a grieving period for them. News teams are scouring the countryside looking for "angles" on the story different from everybody else's "angles" which doubtlessly leads to media swarming into every aspect of life -- we're going on four days now, and the news is still relentlessly focused on the event, which must be exhausting and frustrating for the local citizens. Who wants to go to church in an attempt to share in the community's grieving, and have a national news network camera there to intrude as you perhaps cry or hug your own children? News media should be banned from all religious events after tragedies, except for maybe one event put on specifically for the media's consumption (such as the interfaith service President Obama addressed).

While I'm at it, you know what else I would ban (or at least, strongly urge as a change in journalistic ethics)? People drawing conclusions about violent video games or violent music. Here's why this one outrages me: I don't consume either product. I don't play outrageously violent video games or listen to (fill in the style blank) music with violent themes. I choose not to. I don't have any problem with others doing so, though. All fine and good. But what truly offends me has been the recent trend (in the past decade, roughly) of news organizations creating their own video-game mockups of violent or military events. Think of the "reconstructions" (or whatever else they called them) of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, for instance. These are becoming ordinary, and I morally object to them because they cheapen real and violent events. A mass murder or a military action should not be presented as a cartoon, to put this another way.

What I am saying to the media producers is you should not be allowed to draw smug conclusions about the effects of violent video games -- in which no beings are actually killed, merely photons -- and then turn around and create a video game presentation of actual violence, such as a military raid or mass shooting. How can you condemn others when you are perpetuating the entire industry in such a fashion, complete with "logos" and "theme music" for whatever horrific event you're supposed to be reporting on? To say nothing of what television networks broadcast in the first five minutes of, say, Bones or any of the CSI franchises as family-friendly entertainment (which wouldn't have even been allowed in a horror movie a few decades ago).

In fact, the best quote to sum this up comes from the band "Gang Of Four" from the punk era (another music genre that came under a fair amount of attack). In a song called "5.45," which was about television news ("At a quarter to six, I watch the news..."), there is one memorable line. This was written back in the 1980s, mind you:

Watch new blood on the 18-inch screen

The corpse is a new personality

As I mentioned, see the first five minutes of any episode of Bones for proof.

And finally, let's get the facts right, guys, okay? Pretty much everything reported on the shooting in the first few hours turned out (once again) to be completely wrong. And that is not even counting all the breathless speculation which I'm positive went out over the 24-hour news networks (which I refused to watch as the story unfolded, just on general principles). When you're on the air non-stop, and there is little or no information, don't try to scoop everybody else when you have not checked your facts. The police have gotten a lot better about refusing to release information until facts are known (and the police, to be fair in this instance, did release erroneous information which the media dutifully reported), but the news media itself needs to do a much better job of policing what goes out over their airwaves in the first few hours of any breaking story.

It's easy to write this off as a modern problem. We all smugly draw the conclusion that "it's the 24-hour news cycle" as if this problem were a recent one. It isn't. Checking sources versus getting the scoop is as old as the concept of "news" itself. Don't believe me? Read what one editor had to say about this problem:

One of the peculiar traits of national character alluded to above is the insatiable appetite which exists in all classes of people in this country for news. It is a thirst so universal that it has given rise to a general and habitual form of salutation on the meeting of friends and strangers, What's the news? This is an inquiry of such universal interest that he who can answer it is always welcome, while he who brings the second report of an event, although it be much more full and correct in its details, is listened to with indifference. From this diseased state of the public taste arises a very great obstacle to the suitable performance of the editorial duties. The most correct rumors are seldom the most rapid in their flight; and while the editor is waiting for the arrival of a true statement of any affair, his readers are satisfied with the distorted representation that had gone forward. If he would keep pace with the curiosity and anticipations of a great part of his readers, he must deal more in crude reports and loose conjectures than in well-authenticated facts and the materials of history.

This was written in 1814, by Nathan Hale (nephew of the Revolutionary spy). The problem is not new. It's always more exciting to publish early and unverified reports, whether you're doing it live on cable television news or whether you're setting type by hand for a non-rotary, one-man, hand-operated press. Building trust with your audience means occasionally not going with "the scoop" if you can't independently verify it. Even if it costs you viewers at that particular moment.

I'm not seriously advocating any new laws here. I don't think "media control" legislation is likely to be necessary, or workable (or constitutional, for that matter). But I do think the media has the capacity to police itself and draw up some new ethical guidelines. As I mentioned, rape victims are seldom named these days. That wasn't true not so long ago. What changed this behavior was pressure from the public to institute new ethical rules for acceptable journalism. Children below a certain age (read that article by Kim Simon again, remembering that she was 14 when tragedy struck her school) should not be allowed on screen no matter what. No matter what their parents say they'll allow. No matter if they've got the key piece of the puzzle which breaks the story wide open. If the parents allow it, and the child does have some unique data, then interview them and then paraphrase it ("one of the children was the only witness to X, and described it thusly to this reporter, while their parents gave comfort..."). It will be rare that such an interview even needs to take place, but even if it must, never show it on screen. Period.

That's not all that tough a concept, really. People might argue with some of the other points I've raised, but the "interview with a traumatized 7-year-old" should be something we all can agree must stop.

But the key thing is for the media to do some self-examination. Once the adrenaline wears off (in a few days, likely), I'd like to see a bit of introspection and navel-gazing from our mainstream media. I'd like viewers to chime in as well, with where they see the media "going over the line." I'd like this conversation to happen on a national basis, in other words. It may not be as important a conversation as the political discussion over gun control laws, but it is ultimately an easier problem to fix. All it requires is the public to demand better journalistic ethics and shame the media into changing its ways in the future. It has worked previously, which is what gives me hope.

 

Chris Weigant blogs at:

ChrisWeigant.com

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