The Boston Marathon. A storied race with fierce competition and wonderful community integration in the heart of Boston, Mass. However, this year the race was cut short April 15 as two explosives went off just after the four-hour mark in the competition.
In the chaos and confusion immediately following the tragic event, the news network coverage assumed its role in the process quite predictably, throwing facts at their audiences unrelentingly. Some of those facts were correct and some were not.
Media demonstrated to us that a desire for viewership was and still is the primary goal of the ‘news business.’ That business, while also trying to report stories in a factual and ethical way, understands that viewers will tune in to whichever news source is essentially breaking the news first.
However, as the violent events of this past academic year are presented, it is important that we understand how that media coverage affects us and how it affects those who perpetrate these acts. While news coverage in general can be a reliable source of information, it has a tendency to lose touch with the problem. That problem is that members of the media need to address the fact that their coverage can perpetuate violence.
As I walked into the HUB dining hall on Monday April 15, I was bombarded from the projector with information voiced by the talking heads on CNN.
It is important to note that breaking news to the public provides exactly the kind of publicity that perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombing, the Newtown shooting, the Virginia Tech shooting and even the September 11 attacks want in the first place.
Psychology professor Mark Baird, who previously worked as a psychologist in the Army, drew comparisons from the situation to a sort of marketing campaign.
“You get free advertising right? It’s one of the reasons why they do it,” Baird said. “I would say that’s not mental illness, that that’s effective - sick - but effective [publicity]. The terrorists want to affect us through horrible acts for political gain.”
However, communications professor Gordon Jackson, who specializes in media ethics, said that while terrorism thrives on publicity, the media is for the most part doing just what it should be.
“The role of journalists is to tell the truth and to accurately portray what has happened, even when it’s awful news and even when it’s going to be news that may lend itself to copycat crimes,” Jackson said.
Also, Jackson said that, for journalists, telling the truth is part of doing the job well.
“The thing that we push in our journalism classes is for students to do good journalism,” Jackson said. “According to the Society of Professional Journalism, good journalism includes...you telling the truth. That’s one of the foundational things for journalists. A second thing is that we minimize harm.”
Jackson elaborated, saying that by minimizing harm, he means it is a responsibility for journalists to promote facts that they believe to be true, but also which will avoid unnecessary harm to those who consume that information. While telling the truth may be an irrefutable standard to have with media coverage, are we really trying to minimize harm in every aspect?
In instances of mass violence such as the Boston Marathon bombing, it is clear people are physically and mentally harmed. Baird said media coverage perpetuates violence by extremists or mentally unstable individuals. Can journalists rightfully say they are minimizing harm when people still die of terrorist attacks in the U.S. even after the 2,992 who perished in the September 11 attacks, as a result of terrorism that Jackson said, ‘thrives off of publicity?’ Terrorists at large whether they be domestic or internationally based, Islamic radicals or diagnosed with mental illnesses, have clearly taken advantage of a system that rewards violence with recognition. This fact remains even though that recognition leads to infamy.
According to the The New York Daily News, investigators discovered among the Newtown shooter’s possessions, "a chilling spreadsheet 7 feet long and 4 feet wide that required a special printer, a document that contained the Newtown shooter’s obsessive, extensive research — in nine-point font — about mass murders of the past, and even attempted murders." This followed an earlier report that said the Newtown shooter may have been motivated by a desire to outdo a Norwegian man who killed 77 people in July 2011, law enforcement sources told CBS Evening News.
Baird said that there tends to be an ‘us vs. them’ mentality. People separate themselves, physically and symbolically, from the mentally ill. This results in a need in the minds of those troubled people to act out.
Nevertheless, Jackson doesn’t see the media at fault in this, because the media is doing exactly what they are supposed to do when covering news.
“With the nature of news, news by definition is a break from the ordinary. Normally the ordinary isn’t very interesting, and when a break happens, it’s often a bad [news] break,” Jackson said.
Jackson pointed out that journalists aren’t equipped to be psychotherapists, and that they can’t question motivation because they aren’t qualified to speak on it.
Despite the seemingly end-all nature of that argument, I would say that journalists should cover terrorism in a cautious and conscientious way. A journalist should take into account evidence of past crimes similar to ones like the Boston Marathon bombing, in order to form a better understanding of what the perpetrator’s goal might have been. In this way, a journalist doesn’t need to serve as a psychoanalyst and can just look at the information as it sits right in front of them to make a more educated and knowledgeable report.
Timeliness is always an issue for reporting, but it’s obvious that there is an incredible amount of information and analysis done in the psychiatric community which points to certain conclusions about possible motivations for these atrocities. This not only saves time for journalists, but it also ensures that their reporting is sound and thoughtful.
While we cannot deny the public of its addictive 24 -hour news cycle, and although media coverage may to some extent perpetuate violence, the media can not afford, in terms of its role and purpose, to simply not tell you that things happen. However, we in the media and you as a consumer of it can afford to not see a picture or hear the name of a perpetrator of these crimes. It will not become an issue of the public placing blame on someone else as a result of not knowing exactly who the perpetrator is. Once people understand why they cannot know, I believe that they will be less willing to investigate things for themselves. I retain that faith in the American public.
As you may have noticed thus far, I refused to include the names of those who have inflicted horrific atrocities in our country. This is because they don’t deserve the fame we give them in the news, on television, internet or through our day-to-day conversations. We need to spend more time focusing on the problem of media perpetuating violence rather than the outcome of people being killed by terrorist acts. In this way, we can infallibly prevent that outcome.
Jackson said that he responds to those who critique media with the question, ‘what is the alternative that you can come up with?’ While I admit to being a critic of media in some cases, I find myself at odds with this question because I believe media should be the ones to answer it. I believe that it is up to those such as Gordon Jackson and all the other significant members of the professional media community to address the fact that today’s coverage is a catalyst for violence. To say that the news coverage we absorb every day is good enough is to deny the ability of news coverage to be better. It is to deny that journalists can be better, and it is most undoubtedly denying that people can be better.
Contact Connor Soudani at firstname.lastname@example.org