Tuesday, May 17, 2011

If it bleeds it leads...and leads, and leads, and leads...

Emma Morehart
There is a common thread in all of these readings. Part of it is definitely “if it bleeds, it leads” but the other part worth mentioning is “for a very long time.” Obviously, if it “bleeds” like Hurricane Katrina, then it has to lead. That is a huge story. Missing children, rape, murder, car accidents, all horrific stories, but still big stories. The problem is not that the story leads, but that it keeps on leading.

It sounds insensitive to say that these stories must be told, but they must. Journalists cross the line, though, when they tell these stories at the expense of the victims. In “How the Media Treated Me,” almost all of the victims either felt violated or disappointed in the media.

Who are we writing for?

 Maureen Kanka, a mother whose daughter was raped and murdered by their neighbor, said she decided the best way to deal with the media was to use it to her advantage, as well. She controlled the agenda and used the media in her quest to make a law that required identification of convicted sex offenders.

Lenny Skutnik and Mitchell Wright both said that they knew the media had to do its job, but Skutnik, who rescued a survivor of a plane crash, gave an interesting piece of advice: “Get an agent. If you can’t get money out of (the media), don’t do it.”

This introduces one of every journalist’s dilemmas. For the most part, our job is to report the news as it happens, fairly and without bias. But part of our job is inevitably to write what people want to read. Do people want to read as much about death as we think they do? According to an American Journalism Review article titled “Et Tu, ‘Nightline’?” the public “appreciates seeing everything – the world fixated on each plodding step in the funeral procession, breathed in every tearful detail at the burial” of John F. Kennedy. It was this coverage of Kennedy’s funeral that sparked the “show all” theory of event coverage, according to the article.

How are we writing it?
Ultimately, it depends on the journalist covering the story. It is about ethics and dedication to a well-researched, unbiased story. People like Bruce Shapiro (see “How the Media Treated Me”) would not have to sit down to the evening TV and see his bloody body roll across the screen months after an accident if the broadcast station had the decency to ask him first. It is not against the law to show such footage, but it is certainly unethical to do so without the victim’s consent.

People like Mitchell Wright would not have to deal with reporters sneaking into his home by pretending to be friends of the family. The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics states that journalists should minimize harm. “Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect.”

Too often, journalists want the story, the byline and the assignment and do not consider the feelings of the victims. Most likely, these journalists are in the minority and the majority of the others are fair, compassionate and patient. But just like in the news, it is the bad eggs that people remember. The media chain is only as strong as its weakest link, if you will.

What can we do better?
Ethics is a vital part of journalism, because the majority of the unethical things that journalists do are completely legal. But for the most part, the public does not see the difference. It may be legal to use footage of a bloody victim’s body, but it is still rude. It may be legal to question a victim as soon as he hits the hospital bed, but it is still rude. It may be legal to enter a victim’s home (with their consent), but it is still rude to move around his furniture and be intrusive.

After Hurricane Katrina, it became clear that many of the initial news reports were wrong. Most likely, journalists did their best to report what they were told, and to test the accuracy of their sources. But as with all fast-paced, high-powered stories, things slipped through the cracks. It is after the initial aftermath that one can tell the concerned journalists from the cold ones.

Brian Thevenot, a reporter from the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, made several of these mistakes in his coverage of the aftermath of Katrina, and wrote about them in “Myth Making in New Orleans,” an AJR article. But he went back and cleared them up, changing his stories and getting the facts right the second time. The media should be honest when they make mistakes, but not cannibalize themselves. “It was the typical self-abuse that follows media mistakes, and it became an equally unhelpful debate … over whether the media are biased … This sort of cannibalization is of great concern to me,” said Keith Woods, the dean of faculty at the Poynter Institute.

(Click here to watch video.)

The U.S. Department of Justice's Office for Victims of Crime made a video called "The News Media's Coverage of Crime and Victimization. Clearly, the video has a bit of a bias, but this bias is not an uncommon one in the public's view of journalists.

Reporters should always try to do their absolute best in reporting an unbiased story and in seeking truth. But journalists are not in the perfection business. It sounds obvious, but mistakes are going to be made, because people make mistakes. Sources may be overdramatic in their recollection of an event, as happened to Thevenot several times when talking with survivors of the hurricane. People may overestimate the number of dead bodies, the height of the water, the amount of crime. Journalists should do their best to be ethical and truthful, and should not over-dramatize or over-cover a single story. But when they do, they should correct, apologize, move on and do better next time.

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