Ethical coverage of tragedy

Are we tired of sensationalizing the Colorado shooting yet? The shooter’s face has been plastered across front pages and 24/7 news networks over the protests of the victims’ families. CNN anchors have almost excitedly shared every piece of information that was even remotely related to the story. Now we’re digging into every detail of the shooter’s past.

Yes — people wanted to read about the shooting. Like most Americans, I was glued to my computer last Friday. I came to the point that I had to stop reading — by avoiding the Internet entirely for several hours — because I was so weary, discouraged and numb.

How much information did we actually need to know about the shooting? How much of the coverage actually brought clarity to the situation and helped the nation to mourn while preventing further pain? What good did it do to show what the shooter was wearing or what the theater looked like, even if the facts were true? I’ve been mulling over these questions this week.

Al Tompkins at Poynter offered seven tips for journalists, including this one:

Avoid glorifying the shooter. This was a cold-blooded cowardly act. Lower the temperature of your coverage by avoiding adjectives like “terror,” which feed the motivations of those who would love to imagine themselves doing something similar. Stick to the facts, let the emotions come from the people you interview. There is no need for hyperventilated headlines and breathless copy. The story is tough enough.

I’d also refer you to “How the media shouldn’t cover mass murder,” an informative breakdown of news coverage of the day after the shooting, which includes a video with blunt advice about preventing further violence:

“Repeatedly showing us a killer’s face isn’t news; it’s just rubbernecking.”

I’m not sure what I would have done if I had had to report this tragedy, and I realize that it’s easy to stand in judgment on others.

But when we have a killer who obviously wanted publicity — and we have at least one man now seeking the same level of infamy — we must be careful about how we report. Words are powerful, and human beings are more important than readership or ratings.

Update 8/1:

J.J. Gould at The Atlantic has written a thoughtful post about this topic here. He writes that journalists’ responsibilities don’t fit neatly into a Hippocratic Oath, but “[The media] can be vigilant — and the public can be vigilant — about what’s news and what’s not.”

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