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Dispassionate Coverage Questions

August 27, 2015

Think about the way people in the broadcast media handled yesterday’s shooting in Virginia. Almost every TV and radio reporter was shocked, shaken, deeply affected.

Liz Benjamin, for example, was terribly upset on her show. She spoke of how she and her colleagues all had such “heavy hearts.” She spoke of “disbelief” that such a thing could happen to people who were part of the “newsroom family.”

We don’t mean to be critical of Liz. She’s a truly decent person. Her response was natural, sincere and, again, typical of broadcast reporters all across the state and nation.

It’s just that reporters are supposed to be – in the classic tradition – dispassionate.  And in this regard, we can’t help making this point:

Senseless acts of violence occur regularly in our society and reporters cover those events all the time in a “professional” way.

How many times have you heard something to the effect of: “Two people were killed in drive-by shooting in Schenectady last night… and in other news, Kenny Chesney will be appearing at the State Fair.”

The Virginia shooting story was covered differently – with an outpouring of sympathy for the victims by reporters themselves.

Why exactly? Why was the death of Alison Parker more tragic, more poignant, more senseless than other deaths for reporters?

Why were broadcast reporters affected so profoundly? More importantly, why did they show themselves being affected so profoundly?

We’re not being snarky in posing these questions. We just feel like the questions should be posed.

In the same vein, there are two other aspects of the coverage that were stunning to us.

First, there was the “spin” on the shooter.  Spin is not a pejorative here. It’s a word we use to describe the quick and extensive characterization of the shooter in the first few hours after the shooting.

Keep in mind that this guy wasn’t some outsider. He wasn’t Al Qaida or ISIS. He wasn’t an alienated youth.  He was reporter, too. He was a colleague of the victims – part of their “newsroom family.”

And yet, how suddenly Bryce Williams (his on air name) wasn’t gregarious, talented Bryce Williams at all. Suddenly, he was Vesper Flanagan, a person who got into arguments with and terrified other people. There were numerous anecdotes to that effect and they all fit the pattern of a loser, loner, crazed gunman.

This might be an exaggeration, but never in the history of crazed gunman has so complete and compelling a rationale been developed for a crime so quickly. Flanagan committed the crime at 7 am and was unmasked and psychoanalyzed before noon.

But was it all accurate? Maybe. Maybe it’s all is exactly as it appears to be – a deeply troubled, unstable guy who finally snapped. Or maybe there are aspects to broadcast newsrooms and the broadcast industry and the journalist’s world that haven’t been touched upon in the first 24 hours. Just maybe.

The second aspect of the coverage that is worth noting is the way the broadcast and print media diverged.

Liz and a lot of other broadcast reporters were heartbroken – but print reporters didn’t seem to blink. Little or no shock and dismay. Certainly no sentimentality. A story is a story.

This is especially true of the tabs. For them, the Virginia shooting came during a slow news period and provides multiple front page headlines. It’s wood.

Noting that might seem like a wicked shot at the tabs, but it’s actually a perverse compliment. The tabs are handling this shooting in a way that is perfectly consistent with how other stories have been covered.

It might even be said that the tabs are doing so in a way that is more journalistically rigorous than the broadcast media. The tabs are all over the shooter’s ravings about “race war,” while the broadcast media has mentioned it only briefly and in passing.

The tabs see the Virginia shooting in the context of Ferguson and race relations. So far, the broadcast media sees it in terms of the loss of a promising young talent. That’s the main thrust of the broadcast coverage, with a subtext of mental illness and maybe gun control.

So what’s our real point here?  Well it’s not to be unsympathetic to people (reporters) who have been touched by a tragedy and are trying to deal with it. We’re not suggesting that they be automatons. Perhaps we’re suggesting that the same empathy broadcast reporters brought to this story might be brought to other stories? Perhaps members of the media – having now experienced what people in other walks of life go through – will handle things with more sensitivity moving forward? Perhaps what constitutes professionalism in this profession will be reexamined? We don’t know what to make of it exactly. We know only that trying to make sense of senseless things is never quick and easy.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. RedneckNowQnsB4 permalink
    August 28, 2015 2:29 AM

    Print journalists must know how to think, organize their thoughts, and write. Their assignments come from editors and their articles are edited by others. And beyond bylines they literally have no public face. ,Local broadcast and cable TV news people shove a microphone in someone’s face and ask questions fed to them through an earpiece. In the studio they read words written by others. Their names and faces are better known to their audience than the substance of what they are talking about. That feeds their ego and makes them minor celebrities and makes them feel they must emote for their viewers. Often they think that means expressing their feelings about the subject of the moment. That is not journalism. TV was the first social news medium. Now it’s run by earnest but inexperienced young people for an audience who doesn’t care they’re viewing something with little or no substantive information content. CNN, not exactly local, is the worst. Carol Costello yesterday must’ve been encouraged by her bosses to say “that’s terrible” as much as possible in her coverage of the VA shootings. In comparison Fox looks like the BBC.
    Walter Cronkite must be doing 1,000 rpm.

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