Why does the public think media misbehavior is new? Or is the media to blame?

Lauren McGaughy has written a thoughtful story in the Dallas Morning News about how the media’s onslaught on a story can be as traumatizing as the tragedy they’re covering.

A town, even a neighborhood is transformed by a media scrum, and as a consequence the media often gets a black eye in the aftermath.

Sure stories like this are often true, or have an element of truth to them. More true now by electronic media than even 30 years ago when there were just 3 networks and a handful of local affiliates, contrasted now to 5 major English language networks (6 if you include the Associate Press’ TV service), 2 Spanish language domestic networks, and literally scores of stations reporting in multiple languages to a global audience.

Plus radio… plus wire services… plus newspapers.

It is easy to criticize all this. The din of the media is overwhelming. The press of the pack is as unrelenting as their deadlines.

Live shots, exclusives, TV bookers clicking along the sidewalks searching for and enticing victims and their families with free trips to New York to sit on the set of morning talk shows where anchors can profess their emotion and sorrow, sometimes even offered on behalf of “all of us” in TV land.

We do live in an era where the technology has altered the way stories are covered. What used to be a more measured, even methodical pace has been transformed into an unimaginable pressure cooker of competition for the infamous and unrelenting 24/7 news cycle.

The audience expects, partly because we in the media have created this expectation, that entire stories from crime to investigation to resolution can be completed in a day, or perhaps as quickly as a 48 minute episode of Law and Order.

But Ms. McGaughy, criticism of the media is not new. The earliest reference to press-misbehavior (that I can remember) stems from Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s The Front Page. But in this single graph it reminds us that we should keep check on our behavior with an eye to the larger picture of life.

“Bunch of crazy buttinskies with dandruff on their shoulders and holes in their
pants.
Peeking through keyholes, waking people up in the middle of the night to ask them
what they think about Aimee Semple McPherson.
Stealing pictures off old ladies of their daughters that get raped in Oak Park.
And for what?
So a million shop girls and motormen’s wives can get their jollies.
And the next day, somebody wraps the front page around a dead mackerel.”

The people of Sutherland Springs certainly did not ask for the spotlight on their community. They deserved to be treated fairly and professionally, their stories shared but their grief not exploited.

Ethics classes and discussions can prepare this intellectually, but some of that seems to be bent and challenged in real world applications. We’d like to see all this in Manichean terms but we live out lives in the nuance of grey, and can only do our best to do it well in every respect.

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Author: Peter Shaplen Productions

More than four decades of experience as a journalist, producer, reporter, writer and professor of news, corporate production, crisis management.

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