The senseless practice of media mobbing

September 17, 2007

In the age of round-the-clock news, misery gets plenty of company. A bad event, if it’s bad enough, unleashes a flood of reporters, producers, camera crews, satellite trucks and all the techie plumage that accessorizes the media-industrial complex. Whether a mine cave-in, mudslide, bridge collapse or school shooting, the media swarm around disaster sites has become such a routine of contemporary Americana that rarely do you hear anybody ask whether, on balance, it’s a good thing.

That’s not a ridiculous question. Largescale, violent loss of life leaves hundreds of victims behind. Some have visible signs of injury, but all are torn and all are suffering. Their lives will never be what they were.

Yet the public is accustomed to thinking it’s fine to summon these achingly vulnerable people, many of them bewildered and half-insane, to the microphone and the camera. Whatever their other needs, they first take part in the spectacle called news.

What if this is bad for them? Suppose the cameras and questions, the act of providing raw accounts of harrowing events whose full import they haven’t begun to fathom, actually harms them – and slows their recovery from trauma.

Moreover, suppose the media mob thwarts their community’s overall response by preventing survivors from gathering privately to grieve and make sense of what has befallen them.

What prompts these speculations was a conference panel I attended last month in Washington that comprised reporters who worked the aftermath of last April’s murders at Virginia Tech, where 32 students and their killer died.

By the panelists’ accounts, the media assault on rural Blacksburg was frenzied, determined and aggressive — to me, a zoo. At one point a reporter for the Roanoke Times, the nearest sizable daily, counted 130 satellite trucks on the campus. A young Time reporter, Tracy Schmidt, mistaken for a student, was routinely assailed by other reporters: “Were you there, were you in the classroom?” It was, she said, “very in-your-face.” Students who saw the shootings would be “surrounded by friends who were protecting them from the journalists.”

Eyewitnesses were coveted “gets,” hustled from camera to camera, made to repeat the same terrible stories. There were reporters from abroad, from cable, from small outfits looking desperately for hometown students to “localize” the story. “I’ve covered sports, the Final Four, so I’m used to the Big Circus,” said NBC correspondent Kevin Corke. “But this was like nothing I’d ever seen before. It was just incredible.”

True, out of that chaos a compelling picture emerged that enabled a vast public to experience some of the reality of those dreadful events and to share in the loss. But to what end, and at what cost?

In their smart and compassionate book, “Covering Violence,” journalism educators William Cote and Roger Simpson write that it may not be easy to recognize when trauma survivors need to be left alone, and when an interview, instead of being cathartic, deepens the injury by forcing victims to re-experience pain they’re not ready to confront. The halting, confused story a therapist might coax from a traumatized teenager is a completely different narrative from the account a reporter gets by pushing to hear the worst, and capping it off with the question victims hate most: “How did you feel?”

But while the panelists in Washington were mindful of a need to be civil, there was no recognition that the overall media response, in scale and intensity, might be senseless:

– because mobbing serves little but the institutional vanity of media organizations, each of which wants to brand essentially interchangeable content as its very own.

– because a disaster site is basically a vast trauma center; just about every potential news source is injured, highly susceptible to further injury and probably shouldn’t be talking to the media.

– and because media mobbing may destroy the private space a community needs to gather itself quietly and tend to its wounds.

Handling those matters responsibly is impossible unless media agree to restrict their own access. Media pools are nothing new; journalists traditionally pool their efforts and accept feeds from one another when they must. If they can share when courtroom seats are limited, they can share to respect the needs of the grievously hurt.

A cardinal tenet of the ethics journalists subscribe to is minimizing harm. It’s time that injunction took practical form in dealing with people who are already severely harmed.

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