Sunday, October 11, 2015

Fighting a Losing Battle: How Can We Expect Media Members to Ignore Their Civic Duty?

By: Jimmy Watkins
     We have all by now learned of the events that took place at Umpqua Community College in Douglas County, Oregon.  It was a terrible event that took, place, obviously, and the old adage that people use to criticize the media about not giving the killer the attention he wanted has reared its head again.  
     I understand the thought process of people who think this way, including Douglas County Sheriff Doug Hanlin, who refused to name the shooter in a press conference on October third.  But, it's a completely unrealistic thing to expect people in the media (whose job is to cover the news and learn as much as they can about whatever happens) to basically not do their job.  Yes, the killer is getting exposure.  Yes, that is what he wanted.  But, how are we supposed to prepare for tragedies if we never know the details about how or why they happened?  
     At this point, the reader of this post is probably thinking something along the lines of: "But all the sheriff did was not name the shooter," and you are correct.  He is not asking media members to ignore the story completely, he is just asking the press to not name the shooter.  While this lessens the infamy of the shooter, it still does not lessen the infamy of the act.  The shooters would still be getting tons of new coverage, it would just be less direct.  Besides, we have this thing called the Internet now.  The shooters don't need the press to give out their name, they can do it in a YouTube video, even before the event occurs, and one of your Facebook friends, Twitter followers, etc, is bound to share it on to your timeline.  In fact, in the story about Sheriff Hanlin's refusal to name the shooter it describes a similar situation where law enforcement got beat to the punch on the name of the shooter by the Internet community. "After lengthy discussion about how to respond to 15-year-old Jared Padgett's rampage at Reynolds High School last year, law enforcement leaders agreed to release the name. By then, it was already circulating online," writes Kelly House, the article's author.   It's just not realistic to expect people to ignore their natural inclination to curiosity.  That's why the media even exists in the first place.  People want to know what's actually going on, not just what they are being told is going on. 
     Also, the culture of reporting is extremely competitive.  Most people who work at local news stations probably do not want to be working at that same news station their entire careers, or at the very least, they would like to be promoted.  How do you get promoted?  You do good work, and you bring in good ratings.  The currency of good work and ratings in the reporting world is information.  The more information you have, the more in depth your story is, and the more likely people are to continue to pay attention to your stories in the future.  The more attention your stories get, the better you look to your boss.  It's a vicious cycle, but we're all just trying to make a living here.  And when do you think most people pay attention to the news?  You guessed it, in the wake of a tragedy.  There is a blog post that explains basically the exact opposite point that I am trying to communicate here, but it also gives a statistic that further defends the media.  Give the blog a read to get a slightly stronger opinionated view of the other side, but the statistic I am speaking of is the fact that during their coverage of the Boston Marathon Bombings, CNN experienced a 194% increase in ratings.  This is their reporters' time to shine.  Now, obviously, they already made it to the big time, they work for CNN.  But, the trend is the same with all news stations, even small ones.  This is where they can make a name for themselves.  Being one of the first reporters to report the name of the shooter could be huge for a reporter's career.  
     Look, reporting is a dirty business.  The ethical lines can sometimes be very grey, and there are many judgement calls that people in the media will have to make throughout the course of their careers.  But, let's not forget, we all need to know as much as we can about these tragedies in order to prevent them from happening again.  And you know what?  Maybe there is a correlation between the amount of news coverage a tragedy (in this case, a school shooting) gets and the likelihood that someone tries to repeat it.  But, if we learn enough about the tragedies and prepare a good defense for them, maybe we can make it so there are significantly less tragedies to repeat.  Additionally, let's not forget, the people that commit these terrible shootings are not always in the best of mental health, so is getting their name up in lights really the only reason they are committing these terrible acts?

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