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‘Perfect’ Newtown Coverage Rant Isn’t So Perfect After All

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When you work in the media, you can expect one thing for sure: you will be criticized by people no matter what you do.

Even if you intentionally set out not to do something you’ve previously been criticized for doing, someone new will come along and criticize you for that.

Over the weekend, I began spotting people in my friends list — people who, of course, have never spent an hour of their lives actually working in the media and doing the jobs about which they seem to fancy themselves experts — posting a quote from actor Morgan Freeman.

In it, Freeman expresses his feelings about how such a tragedy in Newtown could have happened, and seems to pull no punches in who is to blame.

You probably saw it several times, but here’s the quote in case you didn’t:

You want to know why. This may sound cynical, but here’s why … It’s because of the way the media reports it. Flip on the news and watch how we treat the Batman theater shooter and the Oregon mall shooter like celebrities. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris are household names, but do you know the name of a single victim of Columbine?

Disturbed people who would otherwise just off themselves in their basements see the news and want to top it by doing something worse, and going out in a memorable way. Why a grade school? Why children? Because he’ll be remembered as a horrible monster, instead of a sad nobody … CNN’s article says that if the body count ‘holds up,’ this will rank as the second deadliest shooting behind Virginia Tech, as if statistics somehow make one shooting worse than another.

Then they post a video interview of third-graders for all the details of what they saw and heard while the shootings were happening. Fox News has plastered the killer’s face on all their reports for hours. Any articles or news stories yet that focus on the victims and ignore the killer’s identity? None that I’ve seen yet. Because they don’t sell.

So congratulations, sensationalist media, you’ve just lit the fire for someone to top this and knock off a day care center or a maternity ward next … You can help by forgetting you ever read this man’s name, and remembering the name of at least one victim. You can help by donating to mental health research instead of pointing to gun control as the problem. You can help by turning off the news.”

It’s an interesting commentary, and it certainly plays into the frustrations of those who have wasted no time criticizing the media’s coverage of the shootings.

It even seems to fall in line with comments Freeman made to 60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace about the way to end racism: “Stop talking about it.” But even then, Freeman wasn’t talking about not discussing legitimate cases of racism, so much as talking about racism in general or trying to frame everything as a result of it.

But there’s one key problem with the passage: there’s a very good chance that Freeman didn’t say it. Scroll down the page on the link above and see for yourself. So much for checking one’s facts before reporting something, right?

Do you recall the name of the gunman who shot Gabrielle Giffords? Honestly, I don’t. Sure, if you gave me multiple choice, I’m sure I’d recognize his name. I think of Giffords and how far she’s come since suffering what we’d have thought was a mortal wound. But the shooter himself? I don’t walk around with his name at the tip of my tongue.

And really, that’s saying something. I have a photographic memory. To the point that I once filled out the lease for an apartment for me and one of my closest friends about 18 years ago, and my friend couldn’t be there at that time, so I had to take down his Social Security number for the lease application: I still remember it. Why? Who knows?

Yet I don’t recall the name of the Giffords shooter. It isn’t important to me.

I recall the last name of one of the Columbine shooters, Klebold, only because it’s an unusual name. (And because I had the additional help of having just seen it in the quote.) I wouldn’t pick Eric Harris’s name out of a list. I don’t recall the full names of the victims of the Columbine shootings, though I do clearly remember the interview of a father who’d lost his son and a young man who’d lost his sister, who sat holding hands during an emotional appearance on Today with Katie Couric. I remember that the son’s name was Isaac.

I know — at least, I think I know — the name of one of the hijackers from 9/11. I do know the name of one of the victims of 9/11: Joshua David Birnbaum. In fact, I wrote a lengthy post about him on the fifth anniversary of the event. I know it’s hard to believe coming from someone who works in the media and might therefore be expected to be “glorifying” the bad guys.

If you’re one of the ones who criticize the media for not paying enough attention to victims of such an event, I respectfully ask this: How many tributes to victims have you written? And if you wrote even one, was it before or after you wrote about how the media gets it wrong?

Sorry to be so impertinent, but I’m afraid they are valid questions. And their honest answers speak volumes about your priorities, not the media’s.

It’s impossible, in the first hours after such a tragedy, for the media to spend a great deal of time on the victims. That’s not out of a lack of concern, but simple logistics: even the families don’t yet know their loved ones are victims, yet. Identification has to be performed, and in some cases, for those who haven’t figured it out, the result of gunshot wounds can make a quick identification very difficult.

The late David Brinkley, a man who spent more than 50 years in journalism, had a quote he used once in a while to people who criticized everything. It would begin, “Since you’re so damned smart…” and would precede a question along the lines of, “…what would you have done differently?”

People immediately jumped on the media for getting the name of the suspect wrong in the initial hours after the first 911 call came in: “How could they get that wrong?” was the popular question. How? Because the suspect allegedly carried his brother’s identification. Because a law enforcement official provided the name to the media: it wasn’t a guess on the media’s part, but rather information that was provided to the media without being vetted properly by the provider.

Could the name of the suspect have been saved for later? Sure. Of course. But when an official source gives you information, and your job is to report what you believe to be true, then you do your job.

Don’t complain that the media spent too much time in its initial hours on the suspect and body count and not enough on the victims: it’s all the media had to work with. The media reports on the severity of the shooting because that’s one of the pieces of information it has, not to “light a fire” in the hopes someone else would top it: the very suggestion to the contrary is absurd.

I think, since people enthusiastically began posting this supposed Freeman quote without bothering to check its authenticity, they’ve seen plenty of reports on the victims. Families who were willing to talk about their loved ones were given that opportunity. Names were read. The media, which is always accused of highlighting only the worst, also showed you how a community came together to love each other in an unimaginable disaster, showed people hugging and applauding first responders who’ll never forget the horror of what they saw, showed memorial services where innocents were remembered, and gave the rest of you who had no direct connection to Newtown, Connecticut, the opportunity to join with them in mourning.

It showed you the good and bad of a situation. It presented reaction to something that should never have happened and opened a dialog about what should and shouldn’t be done next.

And it at least tries to help us all make sense of things as we attempt to answer that terrible, unanswerable question: Why?

8 Comments

  1. Having directed local news for well over a decade, I understand fully the “just doing our jobs” aspect of big story coverage.  I totally “get” the “public interest” angle in terms of the dissemination of pertinent and important information.  And I’m down with the media’s role as watchdog, “holding the powerful accountable” and such.  But I can tell you first hand how ridiculous the coverage of big stories has gotten.  Accurate, timely reporting of vetted facts is not enough anymore.  ACCURATE reporting has given way to FAST reporting.  Why is there so much confusion as to the events in Newtown last week?  Simple.  The overzealous news media ran with WHATEVER they got AS SOON as they got it REGARDLESS OF FROM WHOM the “facts” came.  News departments, small and large, want to be able to have guys like you, Patrick, produce those wonderful POP spots (that’s Proof of Performance, for those of you not in the biz) – most of which focus more on how we beat the other guys to the punch.  You rarely see news POPs that boast about ACCURATE reporting – just FIRST, FAST and LONGEST.  Really!  I’ve directed COUNTLESS breaking news cut-ins during which I’ve eventually asked, “Have we not pretty much covered this by now?  Shouldn’t we get back to regular programming?” only to be told that the News Director is watching the competition, and we won’t shut down until after they do.  We’ve said ALL THERE IS TO SAY, but as long as those other guys are on the air, we’re gonna be on the air, too.  That’s not responsible journalism.  That’s exploitation of a news story to hype your station or network as the “News Leader.”  And it goes to ridiculous ends.  
    With regard to the Newtown tragedy in particular:
    – In the first hour or so of the developing story, what the public needed was responsible reporting of facts, verified by multiple sources before air.  How can you claim to be working in the public interest when half of what you report is refuted within MINUTES of airing?  Is it too much to ask that these producers and reporters do their JOBS?  (And I mean the UNGLAMOROUS part of the job – the digging for the real story – not the cool “standing-in-front-of-the-camera” part.)
    – We did not need to shove mics and cameras into the faces of children who have just been through hell.  Irresponsible and heartless.
    – We did not need this story to MONOPOLIZE the 24-hour news cycle (the advent of which, I submit, is a major part of the problem… gotta feed the beast.). You can’t tell me that there was nothing else in the entire WORLD important enough to be covered last Friday. I’m not naive.  I realize that this is the “top story.”  But for God’s sake, give us a break once in a while.  Irresponsible and exploitative.
    – We did not need to hear the 911 tapes.  How exactly does that further the story?  It serves no newsworthy purpose. Irresponsible and SICK.

    [/rant]

    I’m just really glad at times like these to be out of the TV news biz.
    Love ya, Pat.

    1. Chip_51 The biggest thing that seems to have changed over time for me is the notion of TIMELY. “Accurate” and “Timely” have almost become polar opposites, a fact that can’t bode well in the “Information Age.” 
      In many newsrooms, “timely” means NOW. That’s not because of some intentional desire to mislead or run with information that is false; it’s STILL about going with information we BELIEVE TO BE TRUE. But there’s just less time given to actually convince ourselves that we DO believe it to be true.
      I’ve never worked in a newsroom in which a news director didn’t, at some point, make the very call you describe in terms of not wanting to leave the air until AFTER a competitor did. Many of those news directors parted ways with the stations before you and I did, I seem to recall. 
      But I also think that trying to beat the competition with information is only part of the problem. I’d actually argue that this is becoming LESS of the issue: I’d argue that the primary race now has to do with NEW DETAILS rather than BEATING THE COMPETITION. That’s why, I think, we’re faster to report unconfirmed reports. In most cases, we identify them as such when we report them — I’m sure a great deal of the biggest “rumors” would have been presented as “unconfirmed” when they were delivered. But when you know the competition is likely doing the same thing, something in our brains kick in that puts the focus on beating them AT THE SAME STRATEGY as more important than just beating them at all. 
      At least, that’s my best guess.
      Maybe one day you and I will be running a newsroom together. As a certain motion picture director we’re both fond of might have said, “Can you imagine?”

  2. The news media did do one thing right, yesterday they didn’t cover a protest there by a well known church group. There was a total news blackout about it, the only way that I heard about was on Facebook. A number of people posted the wall of firefighters blocking them from being seen.

  3. The Post and Courier had a piece that underlined the time lag factor. 
    A newspaper usually HAS the time to gather facts then check and recheck sources. 
    The “rush to be first” is almost instantaneous with social media and television/radio. 
    I still subscribe and read through my morning paper. 
    At my own pace.

    1. boydsivu1 There’s always a tradeoff between newspapers and broadcast. The newspapers have the advantage of having time to report; but if you’re relying only on the printed edition, you wait longer for that information. The web version — and I’ll readily admit upfront that I didn’t get to see much of P&C’s online reporting — is muddying even those waters, because on the web, everyone’s still trying to get the most updated information they can.

  4. I think the news coverage has been excessive, especially here in Connecticut. For all most the whole day they had constant news coverage, only breaking for commercials and then on Saturday, Sunday and today’s local news programs the programs has been all about it except for the weather forecast. The same thing with the network news programs and on Saturday the local stations had an hour recap of the day’s events from 7 to 8.
    There are just so many interviews with parents, kids, barbers and other teachers that you can stand. There was no way to not hear or see something about it for the last four days. I usual watch the news programs in the morning, noon and evening, but not now I am saturated and numb.
    I tried watching the cable networks, but what do they have on? Law & Order SUV, the Mentalist, NCIS… I just want to watch something that doesn’t involve death!
    As for the fake quote by Morgan Freeman, I can understand why it got circulated, I think so many people thinks it true and share the sentiment. I saw it on a number of my Facebook friends but I didn’t share it because I didn’t want to post anything about Newtown, I have friends that live there and also their kids and grandkids. I didn’t contact them because I want to give them space and also our Wednesday monthly luncheon hasn’t been canceled so I’m guessing they are alright.

    1. DianaCT Times like this are the reason I have DVDs of shows like “The Andy Griffith Show” and “The Twilight Zone” always at the ready. 
      You’re right: there’s only so much you can take of a story. I think the problem is — and I suppose it IS a problem — that tolerance varies wildly from person to person. There are some who want the condensed version and others who scour the internet for every possible syllable. It comes down, as most things to, to trying to satisfy as many as possible, but there will always be those who want more while others want considerably less.

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.