Monday, October 15, 2007

A slap in the face

Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen is deservedly on the receiving end of harsh criticism over his recent comments encouraging the media to ignore a mass shooting in Crandon, Wis. and discouraging residents from responding to reporters' questions.

Telling journalists to stop asking questions is like telling Eric Gagne to throw strikes. It's just impossible.

State officials said Van Hollen was trying to respect the victims' families by invoking his gag order. Well, that's not his job - and, harsh as it may sound, it's not a reporter's obligation to be sensitive to grieving relatives when pursuing a news story.

An editorial in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel gets it right.

"The news media must give the survivors room to grieve in private. But they must also do their job — report on a matter of great importance to the state. Unfortunately, Van Hollen has signaled that he may make the media's job harder."

It's the Fourth Estate's responsibility to act as a watch dog, pestering public officials in cases like this to make sure justice is carried out, and raising important questions as to why such acts are committed in the first place. I'm sure plenty of people would have preferred it if Woodward and Bernstein had held off on their questions as well.

At a time when public officials across the country are trying to combat the "Stop Snitchin'" campaign, Van Hollen just gave the movement a boost. Witnesses to violent crimes are already reluctant enough to talk to the press out of fear for their personal safety. This is evident by the prevalence of anonymous sources in newspaper articles about such crimes. Most public officials entreat residents to open up and speak out as witnesses to help solve cases of murder, rape and gang-related activity. It's ludicrous for anyone in such a position of power to suggest otherwise.

Since my earliest experiences in journalism at the Berkeley Beacon, I've lost track of how many complaints I've heard from readers about the media's "gratuitous," "insensitive" coverage of tragic events. My current editors recently devoted more than an hour at one of our bi-weekly writers' meetings to discussing what, if any, obligation we as reporters have to grieving families. At issue was a controversial front-page photo we published of a woman's body, covered by a sheet, after a fatal DUI accident. We didn't come up with a definitive answer, but several very strong opinions were tossed around.

Journalists can't please everybody. In fact, more often than not, we don't please anybody. Someone once told me that, as a reporter, if you're not pissing someone off, you're not doing your job. We certainly don't need public officials to tell us what that job entails.


D. Paul said...

Motherf****r, please. "Ignore a mass shooting." I get so sick of people telling us to keep the negative news off the front page. Well, guess what, knucklehead, the public has a right to know, and you're not serving the memories of the deceased by glossing over something like that. Makes my head ache something fierce...

Patrick Boyle said...

"Well, that's not his job - and, harsh as it may sound, it's not a reporter's obligation to be sensitive to grieving relatives when pursuing a news story."

While I also get a chill when a state official starts discouraging the media from covering anything, I do think that sentiments like this are one of the many reasons why the public consistantly says in polls that they hate and distrust the media more than virtually any other institution. I understand the thinking behind that statement, but it's hard to see the value in staking out victims' houses and shoving a camera in their face when they arrive to ask how they feel, as if there is any more than one answer to the question. And this is not just true of television news.

No one will disagree with your statements that it is the goal of journalists to ensure justice and go after power, yada yada. But a lot of this coverage is sensationalist and comes from a "bleed, it leads" mindset. Let's not pretend that what Woodward and Bernstein did is the same as the narrow and superficial reporting too often seen in the stories of personal tragedy.

Liz said...

I see what you're saying, Pat. I guess it's important to distinguish between needless sensationalistic coverage and a truly newsworthy story. It's one thing to approach someone on the scene of a fatal fire, say, and shove a microphone in their face to see how they're feeling (although, that is part - albeit an unpleasant one - of a reporter's job description, and often gives a human angle to an otherwise routine story).

But what I was talking about - what I encounter more often with readers - is family members who say, for instance, "Don't put that my son was driving drunk when he died in the paper. No one needs to know that." In those instances, it's not a reporter's responsibility to sweep information under the rug out of some perceived obligation to a suffering family member.