Here’s a bit of background: I didn’t grow up with a subscription to the local paper. We didn’t really watch the news unless there was a major weather event coming.
But still, my second year in college I found journalism. It became my life and I spent more hours at the college newspaper office than I did at my own home and certainly more than the library. After school I got a job right away and spent the next several years of my life covering everything from murders to school board meetings. I’ve been praised and I’ve been threatened with bodily harm while on assignments. As a result I find myself defending the actions of journalism and the media on a regular basis. It makes no difference that I have been out of the newsroom for three years. It’s in my blood now. And so every time I hear someone blame the media for some social ill, I get on the defensive. When I hear or read someone say the media is fueling the fire of some narcissist, I react.
I can think of three examples off the cuff; first, the Supreme Court decision in favor of The First Amendment and, unfortunately, in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church and their disgusting demonstrations at military funerals.
I think their strategies are despicable and inappropriate and while I wish there was a way to stop them. But the way our society works, the way our Constitution works, is that in order to make your speech free, we make all speech free. One comment from a Facebook friend of a Facebook friend: “I saw that on the news tonight. Ignore those ignorant, horrible, people. They will stop if they are ignored. Pay no attention. Media has to stop too.” If the media never covered the Westboro Baptist demonstrations and pickets, etc., would as many people be aware of this group and what they stand for? Would as many people have gotten together to counter their behaviors? As someone who has never been to a military funeral, I know I would have never known about them. Without the coverage of the church’s ridiculous demonstrations, they would go on without outrage. I don’t think these are the type of people who will shrink away if they don’t get the media’s attention. Seeing people in mourning horrified seems to be what satisfies these folks. Second, the ever-present, always popular, celebrity trainwreck; we’ll use Charlie Sheen as our example for this one. At any given time you can sub in Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, a random “celebutante” for Sheen. This is a special kind of case because very often the celebrity being covered, the fans of said celebrity and the people who could give a hoot about said celebrity all have their own complaints. It’s as though NO ONE wants the media to cover the celebrity train wreck. This is a lie. People feel guilty so they act offended by the paparazzi or the TMZ journalists and their ilk. If as many people actually did feel offended enough to vote with their wallets or their online viewing habits, then no one would make any money on images of Miley Cyrus smoking a bong. Rather, using the Sheen example, three separate networks wouldn’t have done hour-long interviews.
In short, get over it. You want to be high brow and not enjoy seeing people’s lives implode, but you like to see that other people have it worse than you. You also want to see that having a boatload of money doesn’t save you from being a jackass. Schadenfreude: pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others. And let me be clear, I’m talking about the universal “you,” meaning me, too. I’m no better in many cases (though I still don’t get the “Teen Mom” celebrity turns) and often worse in some cases because I try to get to the bottom of scandals of minor celebrities that aren’t all over the cover of the grocery store tabloids.
Finally, a most recent example, one I just started reading about today. There was – allegedly – a horrible mass sexual assault against an 11-year-old girl in Texas. The New York Times ran a story about the assault and the fallout. Because of the coverage, the activist Website change.org has started a petition demanding the Times run an apology about the story. The writer of the story reported that people in the community said the young girl wore clothes “more appropriate for a 20-year-old” and makeup, that she also hung out with teenagers at a local playground. Change.org and thousands of petitioners feel this is a “blame the victim” attitude, noting that in the story those arrested in connection with the assault were glossed over. It was only mentioned in passing that one of the alleged attackers was previously convicted of manslaughter. This is the murkiest of the three examples. Many things could have happened with this story. Some people might think the story shouldn’t have been covered at all. But, the grave nature of this crime makes it a compelling topic, and it does speak to the sexualization of young girls. Some think the coverage now feeds into an attitude that they way a girl or woman dresses speaks to her sexuality. Perhaps if she was dressed in a short skirt, she was “asking for it” and that makes it understandable for a group of 17 men to assault her.
I think it was bad storytelling and unfortunately, it happens when there are problems with space on the page or time before a deadline. In my very humble opinion, I guess another day should have been taken on the story. More sources should have been mined and more information about the suspects should have been gathered. On the surface, the story comes off as a “quick hit,” that the reporter went to the neighborhood where it happened and wrote for color. A lengthy description was given of the alleged crime scene, but the sound bites from neighbors give the impression of a community trying to protect their boys, their neighbors. I think doing a more detailed follow-up is necessary to give more information in the context of little girls growing up too fast in today’s society and a small town rocked by a horrific crime. I don’t think an apology in print will help anyone, including the victim.
And there it is, three different examples of stories you could find in the same newspaper tomorrow. Three different takes, but the same result – media has to cover the story, but it has to cover it well.
April is a Public Relations Professional and Freelance Writer in the Philadelphia Area
Contact: April (@) ahmedia.biz