A former student wrote a very thoughtful post on Facebook in the wake of the shootings in Chattanooga. In it, she said she wanted to see people focus more on the memories of the victims than on sensationalizing the shooter.
Unfortunately, this is a topic that has come up too many times in recent years. Virginia Tech, Aurora, Sandy Hook — all of them were unspeakable tragedies carried out by men whose purpose was to claim innocent lives. In each incident, the media always asks itself the same questions: how much should we reveal about the killer? Should we show pictures of the killer? How often? What about the names, ages, and photos of the victims?
These shootings are unspeakable acts — that the media is forced to speak about.
The first line of the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics is “seek truth and report it.” What they don’t teach you in J-school is how horrible that truth may be. Innocent people, perhaps even children, being killed. Deluded men justifying the slaughter with rambling manifestos. Suddenly, as a journalist, you are faced with a dilemma: you have an obligation to report the truth, but at what cost?
Sometimes mistakes can be made. I still remember watching online as the Virginia Tech shootings unfolded in 2007. The shooter wanted to be glorified – even sent NBC a package during the shootings containing his manifesto, and photos/videos of him holding guns. Suddenly, those terrifying images were made public, and I remember feeling sick. NBC published just a portion of the materials, and was criticized for allowing a public platform for the killer’s warped views. In the minds of many, this gave the killer what he wanted: publicity for his horrible act.
The media has also made mistakes during the complex continuing coverage surrounding shootings. Emotional witnesses on the air, personal photos of the victims — both lead some to say “too soon.” With the incident still unfolding, is it right or ethical to begin publishing the names or faces of those who have died?
These awful situations are the worst, ultimate test of a journalist’s judgment and morals. There is no harder moment in determining what can be published, and what should be published.
Because as uncomfortable as it might be, how horrifying the situation, journalists still have a duty to share the truth. They have an obligation to inform the public on what is happening. It’s their responsibility to create an informed and educated public, and you do that by reporting, even if it’s on one of the most terrible situations imaginable. You make judgments, sure. You don’t give a killer what he wants by putting his sick justification online for the world to see, but people deserve to know who committed this act and what may have caused it. Putting pictures of victims on the air while the incident is still active is unfair to families waiting for information from police, but the public should also eventually know whose lives were stolen, to show the toll on human life. Withholding too much information is just the same as putting out too much. You have to share information, even if it’s hard.
If we don’t – aren’t we doomed to see the same things again and again? When confronted with horrors, people act. Public opinion turned in the Vietnam War when news crews began broadcasting color footage of the carnage. If those reporters had ignored the horrors, how long would it have continued?
Where’s the line? Ask 10 different reporters and you’ll get 10 different responses.
So long as there are tragedies like this, there will always be the questions. How much is too much? What is not enough? Unfortunately, there may never be a clear answer. So the media needs to do what it’s supposed to: provide information as responsibly as it can, and let the public find meaning in it.