Tuesday, September 29, 2015

If It Bleeds, It Leads

Abbey Knupp

While it is not found in any code of ethics, the creed, “If it bleeds, it leads” has stuck in the back of journalists’ minds for decades. The public’s desire for crime stories and coverage of other intense events has given crime and carnage a prevalent spot in most major publications.

Though it is important for crime stories to be covered so the public can be aware of robberies, murders, car crashes, and other events, the demand has also led to sensationalism and issues of safety, both for the reporter chasing the story and for the subjects involved.

Photo courtesy of Indiewire
Nightcrawler, a 2014 film written and directed by Dan Gilroy, touches on the topic of how reporters venture into the realm of sensationalism while try to find bleeding, leading stories. In the film, Jake Gyllenhaal plays Louis Bloom, a jobless man who starts chasing crime in order to capture video to sell to news stations.

Bloom breaches the ethical boundaries of journalism. He starts arriving at crime scenes and crash sites before the police, moving bodies, and disturbing evidence in order to get better pictures and video, which he sells to the local news station.

In the film, it is clear that Bloom’s meddling with the crime scenes and the insertion of himself into unauthorized places crosses ethical boundaries. For real-life crime reporters, however, the line is not so clear.

As Dylan Byers and Hadas Gold suggest in their article Ferguson media get into the story, it is sometimes impossible for journalists to separate themselves from the unfolding events. Many journalists covering the protests in Ferguson, Missouri that followed the police shooting of Michael Brown in August of 2014 were stuck in the thicket of the unfolding events, unintentionally becoming a part of the story.

Some of the journalists were hit with teargas thrown by the police and others, like Wesley Lowery, from The Washington Post, and Ryan Reilly, from The Huffington Post, were arrested. The fast pace of the unfolding events and the demand for quick, constant updates fostered a live-tweeting culture from journalists, where facts and information were spit out just as quickly as they were obtained.

The screening process is either thin or nonexistent for tweets. Information is received, processed, and recited to the public in a quick 140 characters or less. In the heat of the moment, reporters aren’t thinking about what is ethical or unethical to share, they are simply stating all of the facts that they can gather.

Despite the fact that they are not fabricating scenes like Gyllenhaal’s character in Nightcrawler, the relentless onslaught of unfiltered information can be just as detrimental as stretching the truth.

Like Malcom Harris stated in his article for Aljazeera America, tweeting the locations and pictures of people directly involved in the action can give information to police officers and opposing groups, which can influence and change the situation. In some ways, that can create more news in a way very similar to the way that Gyllenhaal’s character stretched the truth in Nightcrawler

Despite the fact that the ethical breach is not as extreme as that depicted in the film, crime reporters have a duty to make sure that they are not spreading bleeding content just to make sure they lead. While journalists have a duty to provide the public with accurate, prevalent information, they also have a duty to the subjects of the story and themselves to put safety ahead of the desire to be on the front page.

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