In regard to the recent shooting tragedies in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, there are individuals I’ve seen calling the media vultures, telling them they should go home and let the residents of these two cities, in the midst of traumatic events, heal. This isn’t anything new. And if you’re one of these people who thinks the media is nothing but a pox upon society, I’m not saying you should feel any different. A camera and a recorder in someone’s face is a jarring experience especially when it’s not asked for. I’m asking readers to consider another side of the coin and a behind-the-scenes look at journalism. I’m also saying this as someone who’s interviewed victims of horrible events, although I’ve never handled a mass shooting, so take this all with a grain of salt.
It’s important for the press (and I call it press to distinguish it from other forms of media and the entertainment business) to engage difficult topics. Sadly, tragedy is part of the job and the job is needed for a functioning democracy. Capturing moments and sharing tough sound bites, photos, videos, clips and quotes, goes with that so the public can tell its government what it expects in terms of laws and to understand what government is or isn’t doing in turn to reflect its public’s will (among other duties of the press). It’s important for communities at large to understand what is happening during a crisis for hundreds of reasons.
That said, respect for sources and the individuals living these moments is essential. Not only is it important to maintain the public’s trust in the press, but simply because it’s the right thing. Tragedy is not meant to be a tabloid story and people living it shouldn’t be treated as such either. They aren’t meant to be someone’s entertainment. This is life. These are stories that affect actual people and create consequences in turn. Unfortunately, handling things delicately can often be where some in this business fail because clicks, views and such fuel advertisement, which then in turn fuels the business. Journalism is a business, and while needed for the functioning of a democracy, it is a business that must remember its social responsibility to its communities, patrons and partners. Journalism must financially sustain itself to remain viable, but not at the cost of its community.
Consumers of news also have their part in the cycle. There’s a reason why a saying of the business is “if it bleeds, it leads.” A large portion of consumers engage with violent and controversial content through clicks and views. There are certainly news consumers who do their best to avoid it and prefer to consume “good” news, but a part of human nature makes it hard to turn away from the proverbial train wreck.
I would say that probably the most important lesson I ever learned about being a reporter ironically came from my mother and not journalism school or the job itself. It applies in every facet of life and was learned when I complained to my mother about one of the numerous “injustices” my little brother made when we were children.
It’s not what you’re saying, it’s how you say it.
Many reporters (me included) have spoken to people on the absolute worst day of their lives, be they victims, witnesses, first responders or all of the above. If they didn’t want to talk (and understandably for some), I found another way to tell the story best as possible. It’s not that folks don’t want to hear the story or be told the story or share their story, but how you get the story and treat those in the story and present their story is often as important as the story itself. There are thousands of journalists who genuinely care for their sources and how stories affect news consumers. Sadly, there are also many who are willing to throw away ethics while trying to make it up the corporate ladder. I can also say stories I’ve written have split opinions dozens of different ways. Most importantly, reporters are obligated to tell the truth when publishing in a journalistic format.
I would encourage readers to consider that many of us as journalists don’t want to make a source, first responder or witness’ day any worse, especially if it is part of a traumatic event. We are trying to do our jobs and inform the public of things we believe it cares about. Sometimes that means we have to approach the lines of what some may consider socially acceptable to speak with extraordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. That does not mean we are allowed to forget human decency, however.
The press is a lot of things and comprised of a lot of people. Some good. Some bad. Constructive criticism must exist so that it can improve. Respect must be given to those living these stories as well as those affected as consumers of the stories.
It’s not what you’re saying, it’s how you say it. People need respect, and the press business needs to reflect that in all its aspects.
Dean Wright is a reporter with Ohio Valley Publishing and covers Gallia County, Ohio for the Gallipolis Daily Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.