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.