News Media Follows Tragedy Script Again

It might be time to at least begin the discussion of what role the media plays in horrific episodes like the Newtown massacre. It would be ridiculous to argue that the media not cover these stories, particularly one that is so destructive. The important questions to ask regarding the coverage are how, how much and for how long, and to what end other than for promotional and commercial purposes?

I had planned to talk about the FCC’s 2 GHz ruling and a couple of other industry matters this morning. But after yet another tearful weekend in America, such discussions would seem trivial and utterly inappropriate. And in light of how often the nation now seems to have to endure these horrific days, it might be time to at least begin the discussion of what role the media plays in these episodes. In this instance, the word “episodes” has multiple meanings.

And just so there is no misunderstanding, no argument is being made here that the news media is the root cause of these mass murders. That would be absurd.

But there is some evidence that suggests the tortured souls who perpetrate these atrocities may be proceeding under the assumption their actions will make them “famous” due to the media spotlight. And in their warped minds, the more people they kill, the more “famous” they will be.

Likewise, some believe there is a “copycat” aspect to all this sparked by media coverage. There is no easy solution to this, since the news media clearly has to cover these stories.

Figuring out the proverbial “cause and effect” rarely is simple. But when will be the right time to try to begin to examine this in a meaningful way? If the argument prevails that the moment is not in the immediate days after a grim incident, which has been successfully used to delay almost any political discussion of guns in America, the time will never be right because of the frequency of these tragedies.

From a media perspective, these incidents have become so frequent that the news media has now developed what can only be labeled a “script” for producing the most cruel series of “reality shows” ever.


Think that is too harsh a view? Then consider how easy it has become to identify the “acts” of these “episodes” and the story lines for each.

Act I is the “initial chaos.”

This involves the first word that something has happened and the race by media outlets to figure out not only what has transpired but how they will cover it. That is determined by the scope of the story, the time of day it happened, and its proximity to a media center.

So for a shooting at a suburban Portland, Ore., shopping center that takes place late in the day, smaller local TV stations and newspapers have to be heavily relied upon. Given that location, and that only two people (thankfully) died other than the shooter, the media did not devote many resources to that story.

This act is also dominated by endless inaccurate reports in the rush to get the story. That is partly due to the “fog of war” phenomenon, but also to the competition to break stories. It is marked by a tug of war between the media and local officials. The first priority of local police and other authorities has to be securing the scene and rendering aid and assistance to those in need. That is a given.

But local officials are now so obsessed about being second guessed by the news media, saying something that turns out to be wrong, and, to a lesser extent, about lawsuits, they choose to wait for extended periods to hold their first press conference.

This results in one leak after another to reporters, all of whom want to be first with a story. Last Friday, that meant, among other things, various reports about how many people had died; falsely identifying the shooter as his older brother because he was carrying his sibling’s I.D.; saying the shooter had killed both his mother and father when his father was nowhere near the scene; where the mother had died; and that she worked at school, when apparently she did not.

Act II is the “invasion.”

By Friday afternoon, as the magnitude of the story was becoming known, media outlets from all over were in an all-out scramble to cover the story. This started with news helicopters from nearby media markets hovering above Newtown; the building of special graphics and music packages for the coverage; and the production of promos to tout the “team coverage” of shootings on a particular channel.

Given how close the town is to Manhattan and other major markets, Newtown was then besieged by the three network news anchors and morning show hosts. By Friday night, there were probably more satellite trucks in that few-mile radius than any other single place on earth. There also probably was not an unreserved hotel room anywhere nearby. Even some international media outlets sent crews to the area. Politicians were also descending on the town from all over, to make sure they were seen.

Regardless of the type of disaster, the politicians will always be there in front of the cameras. Connecticut’s governor seemed particularly ill-equipped to deal with the crisis.

Act III is the “story telling.”

By Friday afternoon, with more and more media reporters on the scene, there was a mad rush to cover the story. In this hyper-competitive media environment, this comes down to a series of what media types call “the get.” Who can “get” the best and most dramatic interviews? Who can “get” the best video, including cell phone footage? Who can “get” the best so-called experts on the air? Who can “get” their live shots from the best spots?

So anyone who has any connection to the story whom the media can get access to gets on TV. And in many cases, gets on TV a lot. To be sure, most of these folks have nothing but noble intentions. Many, like the local clergy, feel a responsibility to speak for their community. And others just want the stories of their loved ones to be heard.

But many people who find themselves in this situation do not realize they have the right to say “no” to the media. Perhaps this is understandable. And, to be fair, how many people who live quiet lives in a town virtually no one heard of until Friday morning would say “no” to Diane Sawyer, Brian Williams, Anderson Cooper or any other media celebrity who shows up and pleads with them for an interview? Think the media does not understand that? And more than anything else, these are, understandably so, emotional stories.

The electronic media in this nation are superb in employing production techniques to package content that tugs at their audience’s emotional strings. It is also during this act that another phenomenon of the media age is seen, though usually not in the first news cycle. Many, if not most, of those who appear in front of the cameras are reading from prepared statements.Many are friends or relatives of those suffering who have been designated as a “family spokesman.”

Maybe it is a good thing that people in mourning take a more careful approach to the media. Maybe it is attributable to lawyers. But it is fascinating to see, because it sure was not the case even a few years ago. And with so much time to fill, and often long periods between official briefings, the media are often left to repeat the same information several times an hour and thus the same sound bite can be shown dozens of times.

Another aspect of this part of the saga is the struggle on the part of media outlets to balance their competitive desires while trying to act on some level as journalists, still project empathy, and not be judged to be exploiting the victims. This is a very difficult balancing act at all times, but even more so when young children are involved. How many times on Friday and through the weekend did TV personalities try to remind their viewers that they had asked permission before they interviewed children from the school? How many times did they try to convince the public that people were speaking to the media because they really, really wanted to and were not pressured to appear on camera?

No doubt those in the media who were sent to Newtown to cover the story were also under immense pressure themselves. All three broadcast networks aired hour-long evening newscasts Friday, and then hour-long specials Friday night.

The all-news channels barely paid attention to anything else and went live hour after hour, though is it really a good idea for Fox News and MSNBC to allow their political wingnuts — or for CNN to allow sleazeball Piers Morgan — to anchor coverage blocks during such a story? On many levels, these are not easy stories to cover. But having the right folks, with the right experience, in place would help.

Act IV, the final act, is the “aftermath.”

This act will play out over the days ahead, though for how long remains to be seen. The heart  wrenching elements of this story—i.e., the number of people who died and that so many were kids—will have the media in Newtown through this week at least. But the media will be mindful of possible backlash if the public starts to think that the town, and those in mourning, are not being given some modicum of privacy.

Then again, if need be, more explanations by the media, from the media, of why the media is still around will be in the offing. And media outlets will undeniably have an eye on the ratings, which will probably be huge for the first few days. If the American public, for whatever reason, or combination of reasons, starts to tune out, the media will pack up and go home.

But as long as there are still tales to tell, and ratings to get, the news media will stay. If the media is still in Newtown early next week, it will be interesting to see if a hand-drawn sign or two that reads “media go home” gets put up in front of some home or store.

In the end, there will be those who see this as an overly critical and cynical assessment of the news media and its efforts, and way too concentrated on TV over other news media. That is fine. But, like it or not, these things play out mostly on TV, and other media, including the Internet, take their cue from TV during breaking stories.

And ponder this: What would the country’s TV screens have looked like the last three days if the networks and all news channels had agreed to cover the events in Newtown like C-SPAN covers politics? Or ask the families of those two poor folks who were killed in Portland last week if they would agree? They became all but forgotten by Friday morning, though, some might argue, they might have welcomed that even though it was for the wrong reason.

To repeat, it would be ridiculous to argue that the media not cover these stories, particularly one that is so destructive. The important questions to ask regarding the coverage are how, how much, and for how long, and to what end other than for promotional and commercial purposes?

One thing is for sure. Given the sad number of seriously troubled people in America, the easy access to, and the bewildering stockpile of guns in the country, and a society which seems unwilling or ill-prepared to deal with both, this type of episode will occur again. And the media will be there to follow its somewhat macabre formula for covering it.

The only unknown is how soon it will happen again. So, as the nation’s collective heart continues to weep over the death of 20 little children and seven adults, all anyone can pray for is that it will be long enough this time to at least bury all the dead.

Bob Scherman is editor and publisher of Satellite Business News. He may be reached at 202-785-0505 or [email protected]. This column first appeared in Satellite Business News.

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