What Role Does the Media Play After Public Tragedies?
After a tragedy like last month’s heartbreaking massacre at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown Connecticut, the media has hosted and fostered debates about gun control and gun laws, about the perils of hypermasculinity and the alienation of suburbia, about the failure of mental health systems and the fallacy of assigning blame. Members of the press have written obituaries and attended funerals, interviewed teammates and classmates, debating whether anyone could have known, from interactions with the killer, what horror was coming.
We have also debated our own role in these tragedies and the communities where they occur.
I admit to personal bias here; I usually balk at reporting on recent tragedies myself, beyond commenting on what others have already uncovered. Most of my reporter colleagues will tell you that even reporting the most basic obituaries makes for the worst days to be in our field. And indeed, many in our profession had harsh words for our own this week. Entertainment Weekly’s Ken Tucker had scathing words for the TV news approach:
By the time the network news arrived at their evening newscasts, the event had been branded — NBC called its coverage “Tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary”; ABC went with “Tragedy at the Elementary School” — and more microphones were being stuck in little children’s faces. “Were kids crying and screaming?” prompted ABC’s Dan Harris to one girl..... It’s amazing, the casual gall of TV news talking heads ascribing thoughts to a President, and at the other extreme, to a killer: On Fox News, the blowhard Dr. Keith Ablow said that “reality TV is no friend of preventing such things; Facebook is no friend of preventing such things.” Did that add anything to any viewer’s knowledge?
Roger Ebert went further, claiming that news media actually glorifies the perpetrators of violence.
Others noted that the immediate reporting on the internet was just as culpable and mistake-ridden as that on TV: there were widely-misreported facts about the killer (he was initially named as his brother), there were reporters aggressively tweeting at town residents, there were viral tweets that turned out to be wrong. Jeff Jarvis issued a mea culpa for one of his own tweets.
One writer at BlogHer, a survivor of a school shooting that killed her friend, wrote about the extra trauma inflicted on her by the presence of the media when she was young:
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. I remember you. I remember your names. I remember what channel you were from.
As the BlogHer column predicts, the families of Newtown soon started to beg the media to go home and let them mourn in peace.
A heartrending column from a BBC journalist explains why he was listening to those exhortations and leaving town, describing the media presence as “a circus” that had overwhelmed the community:
There's no denying that this is an astonishing event that audiences want to know about.
;But our footprint in tiny Sandy Hook is exceptionally heavy. And after a while, you have to wonder what more there is to say.
The children have gone. Their poor parents are grieving. The police are saying very little.
Some reporting comes close to repeatedly ripping a sticking plaster off. Watch or listen or read too much, and it feels as if we are wallowing in other people's pain.
Go home, the man in the lobby said, go home. And very soon, I will.
All these sentiments, while understandable and admirable, do not cover the entire spectrum of the media's role.
This is a deeply complex discussion to begin precisely because there is a crucial and good role of newsgathering and storytelling in fostering peace, finding solutions to violence, and lifting up unheard voices.
I spent the Monday before the Sandy Hook tragedy speaking to human rights activists from the developing world who have witnessed extreme violence: rape, slaughter, beatings. They have struggled to see their stories break through in the Western media and they seek more coverage, not less. Even as Sandy Hook residents beg the media to leave, there are so many violent areas in the world that need the media to bear witness. Thus, there is a fulcrum: feminists are familiar with it. We frequently debate the importance of telling abortion and rape stories and respecting the very essential individual right to privacy. For instance, when Savita Halappanavar died in Ireland, her family demanded a public inquiry over whether an abortion would have saved her life, and Irish citizens publicly expressed a sense of guilt and a feeling their society was culpable, just as we have after Sandy Hook. Her case became a public fight and feminists answered the call of her loved ones, but ultimately they, not we, will live with a lost daughter, wife, and friend.
Balance is essential. Yes, the intimate sorrow resulting from tragic violence should be broadcasted, to the extent that those who are suffering are willing to tell their own stories: if we don’t see victims as people, if we don’t understand the very human toll that has been taken, how can we be motivated to prevent such things from happening again? As much hateful nonsense has been published in the wake of Sandy Hook much of the commentary that has arisen in the past week has been thoughtful, even wise.
But we also need to respect the inherent disconnect between the immediate search for answers those of us on the “outside” of tragedies crave—and the illogical reality of loss for those going through it: gaping and no matter how clear the cause, ultimately inexplicable at its core.
There is a line between telling stories respectfully and ripping inappropriately into the wounds of others, between trying to find the truth and fostering an unhealthy obsession in bystanders.
During the days following the recent massacre, I found myself alternately sucked into a vortex of grief and curiosity that I had to check with self control (and my husband at times insisting I get off the computer). The 24-7 sensationalism from the newsmedia is a result of our modern human nature. It was matched by what was found on social media on Twitter and Facebook, an endless wellspring. I watched and against my better inclination participated in a parade of public speculation, hand wringing and sorrow. Some of it was cathartic. Much of it wasn’t.
Secondary debates like the argument over the “I am Adam Lanza’s mother” blog post were interesting, but also added to the circus tent ballooning outward from the initial tragedy. At times I felt like the media, both social and professional, and all its consumers were in a parasitic, mutually-enabling relationship. I wished we could all stop. But it doesn't come easily to our nature.
Loss is the most personal sensation in the world, even when its sudden or violent nature thrusts it into public domain. We can never forget that. The best type of guidance media creators can offer ourselves is to direct our coverage towards preventing more loss, not burrowing deep into the wounds of our fellow human beings. But when I read common-sense policy prescriptions and explanations, I sense again the nobility of the calling. So similarly, the best advice we media consumers can offer ourselves is that ultimately this is not our loss, though we feel its reverberations. Let’s spend our energy honoring victims by making our own society, our own communities, a more peaceful place to live.