Monday, October 09, 2006

A Lack of Sincerity in “Big News”

It seems as though the phrase “if it bleeds, it leads” is all the rage these days. Journalists compete for “hard news.” But recent “hard news” seems to embody natural disasters, school shootings, and terrorist attacks. What is most surprising is that viewers tune into these graphic stories, oftentimes begging for more coverage. And this reality is not even new.

I cannot help but wonder have we become numb to violence? In the race to find the lead story, do journalists compromise their story’s “face” and voice for uncomfortable footage? Have we become desensitized?

Thinking back to the coverage of Hurricane Katrina, every time you turned on the news, you’d be confronted with bodies floating face down in the water. Similarly, when photographs of Iraqi citizens tortured by US soldiers at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison were leaked to American networks, producers jumped on the bandwagon and broadcasts were flooded with the horrific images. Here in Chicago and other major cities, “breaking news” typically involves murder, fire, crashes and corruption. People mourning seem more compelling than people smiling. Tragedy trumps comedy. Too often, we hear what’s going wrong, instead of what’s going right.

As fascinating as crime may be, is this preoccupation with horror and oftentimes disregard for suffering victims pushing the aims of newsgathering too far? For reporters, the struggle over how far to pursue a story presents serious ethical and even moral complications.

Recently, Meredith Vieira traveled to Bailey, Colorado to meet with the parents of Emily Keyes, the victim of a recent school shooting in Platt Canyon High School. In her blog, she writes, “I wish I could stay here for weeks. To meet more people. To tell more stories. It’s like the peeling of an onion…I realize it’s good to leave New York and go back into the country. You forget there’s a big world out here. It’s nice to reconnect with this place called America.” (Click here to read an article on Keyes.)

Are all journalists as compassionate in their pursuit for news?

It’s easy in the race for ratings to lose sight of the intent behind reports.

What’s most interesting is that Vieira disassociates New York from America. America, “the Land of the Free,” the “home of the brave,” a symbol of democracy seems more concerned with death over life.

I think skilled journalists know when not to cross the line and when to counter stories of horror with stories of safety and charity. We need to report the facts, whether they’re uncomfortable or not. It’s how we report these facts and to what depth we report them that becomes tricky.

Sometimes the old maxim “things are better left unsaid” is the best advice.

The link to Meredith Vieira's blog is here.



At Tuesday, October 10, 2006, Blogger Medill Media Watch said...

I absolutely agree that there is something wrong about the way we approach "big stories". In addition to the fact that we seek out blood and gore--newsworthy or not--there's another issue.

Too often, journalists lock onto a big story as it is happening, and then take off when the blood appears to be cleaned up. There's no careful analysis, no "what's next?" Meredith Viera is completely right to want to hang around in Colorado, to earn people's trust and to get the bigger story.

The same thing happens when big stories take place outside of America. We crash-land in whatever country, cameras in hand, and then take off once we think the story is over.

A couple of years ago, I spent a little time in the Balkans, and the comment I got over and over again was "you left us behind." And it was true--we dropped in to help out during the war in the early 90s and proceeded to drop the entire region off our radar as quickly as we'd put it on. And there are still big stories there that should be reported on.

The future is about speed, but maybe we should first slow down and think about the direction that we really should be moving in.


At Sunday, October 15, 2006, Anonymous MG said...

Well, you definitely got that one right! It is often better to leave things unsaid - and I don't mean to be skeptical, but I often question what people like Meredith write on their blogs. I often feel as though they are selling us their compassion in addition to the stories.

Viewers, readers and many other members of society seem to have an attraction to the horrible (it's often movies that depict such things that are at the top of the box office on any particular weekend)... I wonder if the 'real' events in the news that have the gore, whether or not they're newsworthy, are designated to provide viewers with their fix of blood for the day. The anchors and newscasters do their best to be compassionate but I wonder if deep down they're more concerned with how many people have tuned in, or perhaps they're just happy to have an exclusive with the most guts for the day.


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