How About Some Media Control?

[ Posted Monday, December 17th, 2012 – 19:11 UTC ]

We're all talking about the same thing today. We are, indeed, having a "national conversation." The subject is tragic, which is why it has everyone so focused. Another shooting rampage, another town consumed by grief, all played out on the nation's television screens. But precisely because everyone's talking about it, I find that I don't have much to add to the main discussion. All I have are a few fragments that are mostly peripheral in nature, and mostly to do with the news media.

To begin with, I have to add my voice to the rising chorus demanding a little "media control" (I'll leave the gun control arguments to others, at least for today). While I'm a First Amendment enthusiast myself, I can't see any valid reason for any media outlet to interview a 6-year-old after such a tragedy. None. No valid editorial or journalistic reason whatsoever. The public's vaunted "right to know" doesn't even begin to cover it. Stop interviewing small children -- even with their parents' permission. It's exploitative and it's not journalism. It is rank sensationalism. So stop it. Getting a seven-year-old to express his feelings on camera should become a thing of the past in American journalism -- like the public naming of rape victims, for example. Ethical standards change and get better over time. This is one area that needs some immediate attention.

There is an excellent article currently up at the Huffington Post which explains why interviewing children should be made either illegal or at the very least cause editors and producers to lose their job for this sort of behavior. Blogger Kim Simon was 14 years old when she lived through a tragedy at her school. Here's what she has to say to the media:

You were there. You, with your enormous video cameras. You, with your microphones poking into the bubble of grief that grew bigger as we waited for our parents to find us. You, with your horrible questions about what had happened, had we known Mike, had we seen anything? No parents there yet, just children. No teachers, just children. And you.

Some of us screamed at you to leave us alone. Some of us answered your sick questions, because you were the grown-ups, and we were the kids. 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.

Later in her piece, she likens the media to "rabid hungry wolves." Anyone not convinced the media should be barred from interviewing children who have lived through horrible tragedies needs to read Simon's piece -- she says it better than any I've read so far.

Of course, I am saddened by the school shooting, but I also would like to express regret to the people of Newtown Connecticut for the media circus currently taking place in their town. This is something that the American public almost never sees, unless a "big story" takes place in their hometown. In fact, the only times the media circus becomes part of the story (or is even shown on camera, for that matter) is when there is nothing else to show and little else to talk about. High-profile trials spring to mind, such as any court case involving Michael Jackson, for instance. Outside of this subcategory, the first rule of any television cameraman is "don't show the other channels' cameras." The media is supposed to be presented as invisible to the public.

But they're not. Far from it. Anyone living in Newtown at the moment has likely seen cameras all over the place, disturbing what is supposed to be a grieving period for them. News teams are scouring the countryside looking for "angles" on the story different from everybody else's "angles" which doubtlessly leads to media swarming into every aspect of life -- we're going on four days now, and the news is still relentlessly focused on the event, which must be exhausting and frustrating for the local citizens. Who wants to go to church in an attempt to share in the community's grieving, and have a national news network camera there to intrude as you perhaps cry or hug your own children? News media should be banned from all religious events after tragedies, except for maybe one event put on specifically for the media's consumption (such as the interfaith service President Obama addressed).

While I'm at it, you know what else I would ban (or at least, strongly urge as a change in journalistic ethics)? People drawing conclusions about violent video games or violent music. Here's why this one outrages me: I don't consume either product. I don't play outrageously violent video games or listen to (fill in the style blank) music with violent themes. I choose not to. I don't have any problem with others doing so, though. All fine and good. But what truly offends me has been the recent trend (in the past decade, roughly) of news organizations creating their own video-game mockups of violent or military events. Think of the "reconstructions" (or whatever else they called them) of the raid which killed Osama Bin Laden, for instance. These are becoming ordinary, and I morally object to them because they cheapen real and violent events. A mass murder or a military action should not be presented as a cartoon, to put this another way.

What I am saying to the media producers is you should not be allowed to draw smug conclusions about the effects of violent video games -- in which no beings are actually killed, merely photons -- and then turn around and create a video game presentation of actual violence, such as a military raid or mass shooting. How can you condemn others when you are perpetuating the entire industry in such a fashion, complete with "logos" and "theme music" for whatever horrific event you're supposed to be reporting on? To say nothing of what television networks broadcast in the first five minutes of, say, Bones or any of the CSI franchises as family-friendly entertainment (which wouldn't have even been allowed in a horror movie a few decades ago).

In fact, the best quote to sum this up comes from the band "Gang Of Four" from the punk era (another music genre that came under a fair amount of attack). In a song called 5.45 which was about television news ("At a quarter to six, I watch the news..."), there is one memorable line. This was written back in the 1980s, mind you:

Watch new blood on the eighteen-inch screen
The corpse is a new personality

As I mentioned, see the first five minutes of any episode of Bones for proof.

And finally, let's get the facts right, guys, OK? Pretty much everything reported on the shooting in the first few hours turned out (once again) to be completely wrong. And that is not even counting all the breathless speculation which I'm positive went out over the 24-hour news networks (which I refused to watch as the story unfolded, just on general principles). When you're on the air non-stop, and there is little or no information, don't try to scoop everybody else when you have not checked your facts. The police have gotten a lot better about refusing to release information until facts are known (and the police, to be fair in this instance, did release erroneous information which the media dutifully reported), but the news media itself needs to do a much better job of policing what goes out over their airwaves in the first few hours of any breaking story.

It's easy to write this off as a modern problem. We all smugly draw the conclusion that "it's the 24-hour news cycle" as if this problem were a recent one. It isn't. Checking sources versus getting the scoop is as old as the concept of "news" itself. Don't believe me? Read what one editor had to say about this problem:

One of the peculiar traits of national character alluded to above is the insatiable appetite which exists in all classes of people in this country for news. It is a thirst so universal that it has given rise to a general and habitual form of salutation on the meeting of friends and strangers, What's the news? This is an inquiry of such universal interest that he who can answer it is always welcome, while he who brings the second report of an event, although it be much more full and correct in its details, is listened to with indifference. From this diseased state of the public taste arises a very great obstacle to the suitable performance of the editorial duties. The most correct rumors are seldom the most rapid in their flight; and while the editor is waiting for the arrival of a true statement of any affair, his readers are satisfied with the distorted representation that had gone forward. If he would keep pace with the curiosity and anticipations of a great part of his readers, he must deal more in crude reports and loose conjectures than in well-authenticated facts and the materials of history.

This was written in 1814, by Nathan Hale (nephew of the Revolutionary spy). The problem is not new. It's always more exciting to publish early and unverified reports, whether you're doing it live on cable television news or whether you're setting type by hand for a non-rotary one-man hand-operated press. Building trust with your audience means occasionally not going with "the scoop" if you can't independently verify it. Even if it costs you viewers at that particular moment.

I'm not seriously advocating any new laws here. I don't think "media control" legislation is likely to be necessary, or workable (or constitutional, for that matter). But I do think the media has the capacity to police itself and draw up some new ethical guidelines. As I mentioned, rape victims are seldom named these days. That wasn't true not so long ago. What changed this behavior was pressure from the public to institute new ethical rules for acceptable journalism. Children below a certain age (read that article by Kim Simon again, remembering that she was 14 when tragedy struck her school) should not be allowed on screen no matter what. No matter what their parents say they'll allow. No matter if they've got the key piece of the puzzle which breaks the story wide open. If the parents allow it, and the child does have some unique data, then interview them and then paraphrase it ("one of the children was the only witness to X, and described it thusly to this reporter, while their parents gave comfort..."). It will be rare that such an interview even needs to take place, but even if it must, never show it on screen. Period.

That's not all that tough a concept, really. People might argue with some of the other points I've raised, but the "interview with a traumatized 7-year-old" should be something we all can agree must stop.

But the key thing is for the media to do some self-examination. Once the adrenaline wears off (in a few days, likely), I'd like to see a bit of introspection and navel-gazing from our mainstream media. I'd like viewers to chime in as well, with where they see the media "going over the line." I'd like this conversation to happen on a national basis, in other words. It may not be as important a conversation as the political discussion over gun control laws, but it is ultimately an easier problem to fix. All it requires is the public to demand better journalistic ethics and shame the media into changing its ways in the future. It has worked previously, which is what gives me hope.

-- Chris Weigant


Cross-posted at Business Insider
Cross-posted at The Huffington Post

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


12 Comments on “How About Some Media Control?”

  1. [1] 
    BashiBazouk wrote:

    The media has gotten bad at this. I remember when Tonya Harding had a huge fleet of media vans outside her house and far down the block just in case she poked her head out. She probably deserved it but it seemed a bit excessive at the time...

    Going after kids though puts them in the same class as paparazzi, the bottom feeders of journalism.

  2. [2] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    BashiBazouk -

    I agree. I tried searching for two sources for this article, but couldn't find either one of them. The first was (as I remembered it) from "Bowling For Columbine" which actually did show the "media row" interviewing children, and tales from the principal at a school where (again, as I remember it) a 6 year old had killed another 6 year old in Michigan (up until now, the youngest shooting victim at a school in US history). The principal called school off for a few days, but the day he reopened the doors, the media charged the school bus en masse, cameras and microphones out, terrifying the kids. It might have been after the Stockton shooting, too, but it was a memorable piece of film. Too bad I forgot what movie it was from, but it sure does sound like Michael Moore. Anyone?

    The second was an article I read, I believe, in the SF Chronicle. After a school shooting (Stockton again, I believe), a young female journalist had been part of the press "covering" the story, and she later (at least 6 months, could have been a year or two) wrote a LONG and extensive article about how she had quit journalism after seeing what the reporters did to the kids. She was that thunderstruck at her whole profession. This is a powerful article, but I cannot for the life of me dig it up. The Chron's online archives only go back to 1995 or so, and I haven't had any luck finding it on Lexis/Nexis. Which is a shame, because it is one of the most eye-opening pieces I've ever read about the reporting side of the media (television in particular).

    Anyway, that's why today's article was late... searching for sources I never found...


  3. [3] 
    akadjian wrote:

    Wow. Interviewing a 6-year old? That is completely shameless. This is truly something I think everyone would agree is wrong.

    Me personally, I had to turn off the coverage and remind myself that we always have the choice not to watch.

    It was just too much listening to the endless speculation which is used to fill up time on the mainstream networks. It kept reminding me of how sports is covered ... they keep speculating to keep you watching.


    p.s. Bashi- A quick reminder. If you haven't donated to Chris' fall fund drive, I'd encourage you to chip in a couple bucks. If you have, apologies.

    We'd like to see Chris get a new computer in the New Year as, from what I understand, his current one is 10 years old. Which as a computer geek, I simply cannot fathom :)

  4. [4] 
    Michale wrote:

    I wholeheartedly agree with the interviewing kids thing. But I think the blame is misplaced.. Remember the story of the fox and the scorpion?? Getting mad at the MSM for being depraved is like getting mad at the sun for rising..

    It's the nature of the MSM to be the way they are.

    Personally, I think the blame lies with the parents who allow this sort of thing...

    And, since we're talking about things we would like to see banned, I would like put a ban on ANY politicking and pontificating for TEN DAYS following a mass shooting...

    When I first posted about the Sandy Hook tragedy, I stated that within a couple hours, the politicians would hit the airwaves pointing fingers.. I was off by half.. It took less than an our for politicians to get in front of a microphone and start their hysterical and irrational bloviating...

    Any politician who opens their yap within the 10 day cooling off period is taken out and summarily shot..

    And yes.. I do appreciate the irony... :D

    We'd like to see Chris get a new computer in the New Year as, from what I understand, his current one is 10 years old. Which as a computer geek, I simply cannot fathom :)

    I second that... I get antsy and anxious if my video card is 3 months old... :D


  5. [5] 
    Michale wrote:

    Do you want to know the best time to discuss gun control??

    When it can be done w/o cheap political grandstanding for the purposes of pushing thru an unpopular agenda...


  6. [6] 
    michty6 wrote:

    This isn't just an American thing, the media all over the world have become more as a result of the 24/7 reporting/drive for profit - which has caused the quality of the journalism to go down rapidly. From my small experiences, the UK media (especially newspapers) are much, much worse than the American/Canadian media in this regard - just get them on anything Royal family related and they will go crazy. Or how about hacking peoples phones for fun...

    However, we do have the good old BBC who are much better :)

  7. [7] 
    LewDan wrote:

    I couldn't agree more. The thing is its the "media" not the "news." The media got out of the news business long ago. Its all infotainment. Which I guess is a polite way of saying what used to be called (in my youth) "yellow journalism."

    Nothing could be further from the values and goals of our Founding Fathers than Ayn Rand's "philosophy." That people are so misguided as to promote Rand's views as the way to safeguard democracy and freedom goes a long way towards explaining why we're in such deep trouble, in so many ways.

    I like to keep reminding people of what I consider to be first principles, that we claim to revere, but really abhor. Like the first amendment, which was intended to prevent those in power from silencing dissent, but is abused in the service of slander and "the Big Lie" to discredit opponents and silence dissenting opinions. (And, according to SCOTUS, protects the powerful from being prevented from overwhelming dissenting opinions.)

    Or states rights, intended to protect minority communities from the tyranny of the majority, now abused to persecute minority communities and circumvent federal protections for minority communities.

    The filibuster, intended to ensure minority views could not be simply ignored and subjected to the whims of the majority, now abused to ignore majority views and subject the majority to the whims of the minority.

    I happen to believe that at the time of the founding the people of this nation actually wanted to find a way to work together for mutual support and protection and were willing to accord others the autonomy to conduct their own affairs in peace in return for the freedom to autonomously conduct one's own affairs in peace.

    No longer. In our Ayn Rand America, freedom solely resides in and pertains to self alone. Winning is everything and all's fair in love, war, and politics now. We no longer agreed its important to us for us to protect our democracy and each others' individual rights and personal freedoms. In modern America if you can get away with something you've every right to do it. Its all about gaming the system for personal benefit, and many of us have gotten very good at it.

    Unfortunately, first principles—The constitution doesn't protect our democracy, individual rights and personal freedoms because its the law. The constitution is the law because we agreed it was important to us for us to protect our democracy and each others' individual rights and personal freedoms.

    So sure, you can interview a seven year-old, attract lots of eyeballs, sell advertising, and make money—at the expense of the well-being of the child. Its your First Amendment Right even! Of course, the fact that the Bill of Rights now guarantees the exploitation of children, rather than protecting them, is exactly where we, as a nation, are today—and why. We can either decide, once again, that we want to be a civilized democratic society—or we can live Ayn Rand.

  8. [8] 
    akadjian wrote:

    Nice ... well said, LD!

    I still find it amazing that 'personal responsibility' turned into a dystopian grab all you can grab screw your neighbor vision.


  9. [9] 
    Michale wrote:

    I still find it amazing that 'personal responsibility' turned into a dystopian grab all you can grab screw your neighbor vision.

    Or, more accurately, it's what happens when personal liberty and freedom trumps the public good... :D

    "Every rose has it's thorns"


  10. [10] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Michale [4] -

    On the scorpion thing -- the MSM can be shamed into changing its ways. I've seen it happen (on rape victims).

    Interestingly, tonight the media actually reported that the people of Sandy Hook are getting pretty fed up with the media. I saw footage of a sign that spoke volumes in two words: "No Media!"

    michty6 -

    RE the BBC: yeah, but you guys pay television and radio tax for it. Never happen here in America. Heh.

    LewDan -

    Excellent points, especially your closing two paragraphs. Well said.


  11. [11] 
    Michale wrote:

    On the scorpion thing -- the MSM can be shamed into changing its ways. I've seen it happen (on rape victims).


    But that was quite a while ago. Long before the MSM had become so depraved and the field so competitive..

    I recall reading a story online about scientists who stopped using rats in their experiments and started using journalists.. It seems the scientists were becoming to attached to the rats... :D

    RE the BBC: yeah, but you guys pay television and radio tax for it. Never happen here in America. Heh

    {{{cough}}} NPR {{{cough}}} :D


  12. [12] 
    Michale wrote:

    I recall reading a story online about scientists who stopped using rats in their experiments and started using journalists.. It seems the scientists were becoming to attached to the rats... :D

    I hate it when I blow the punch line... :(

    It seems that the scientists were becoming to attached to the rats and there are some things that even rats won't do ...


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