Jumping the Gun: Irresponsible Media After the Shootings

I can’t say I’ve followed the Aurora Tragedy all that closely in the 64 hours since that all went down, but what I’ve seen on Twitter in the limited time I’ve been online this weekend has left me ill and angry at those in the journalistic field who should know better, demand better, and do better.

There are those who, like me, feel that saying the shooter’s name more than absolutely necessary is giving the sick fuck exactly what he’s looking for. There are those who are sitting on details until law enforcement confirms or denies the findings. There are also those who don’t want to “be first” with the details, who realize their value now isn’t in the speed of sharing information but is rather in assigning context to one of the worst domestic acts of violence in history. (There are also those like Anderson Cooper, who try not to say the shooter’s name, who are not speculating, and who do not want to be a part of this circus. Thank goodness for ethos.)

Much of the news media has social media and news in 2012 wrong. The business interests running the industry just don’t get it.

We need context now. The time for objectivity and passive reporting is gone. So too is the time for sensationalism and over-selling a story.

Unfortunately, many in the media disagree. They deludedly think being the first and telling the “most stuff” is what resonates long-term.

But we live in a world now where a man buys some weapons, can wear a costume, walk into a theatre, and shoot 70+ people.

We live in that world.

I read today where @ProducerMatthew Keys, a Deputy Social Media Editor for @Reuters News, was posting photos of the Aurora Shooter’s parent’s San Diego home. I’d link to the tweets and all, but then I feel I’d be committing the same borderline ethical transgressions. He seems to think it’s all well and good, that the license plates and house addresses were blurred. True — but the address is not blurred where it’s painted on the street curb.

Still: Really? This is “news”? Why does it matter where they live? Why do we need to see their home at all? Why do we care that the shooter’s car remains parked in front of their home? What value does the picture have over merely telling us the car is parked at his parents’ home? Where is the context provided for why this “news” is relevant to the story overall?

And where, most importantly, is the commentary that says his parents didn’t shoot anyone, and his mother acquiesced and said they had the right person when media and authorities first called her?

Oh, right. There’s only 140 characters, and 21 of those are absorbed by the photo’s URL, so, clearly in the remaining 119 characters, none of the Other Stuff That Can’t Fit matters.

Clearly, every consumer of content on the web is an upstanding and reliable individual who will take such information and behave as a civilized soul should. Right?

Most people are horrified by this crime, therefore all are equally horrified, and thusly we should reveal all we can about the atrocity so all can collectively mourn. Right?

Are you KIDDING me?

This shooter was a nutbag.* Who’s to say some off-the-deep-end family or friend of a victim doesn’t track down that Google Streetview address of the  shooter’s parents’ home and then go teach them what “they shoulda taught their son” or something?

We live in THAT WORLD now.

We live in the world where economies spanning the globe teeter on the brink. We live in the world where the rich get richer and the poor foot the bill, and are fed up.

We live in a time when people are angry and getting angrier.

These spree-killing crimes aren’t just an American phenomena now. They’ve spread, but America remains the leader.

Somehow, the ridiculous American legal system seems to think “freedom to bear arms” in an age where killing is high-tech and big-biz equates that same freedom granted 223 years ago, when a firearm required complicated loading and was slow, cumbersome, and often dangerous fire.

Today, weapons are out of control. There’s no need to fire dozens, even hundreds of rounds per minute. I don’t care who you are, where you are.

No need for such efficiency in death unless you’re a psychopath trying to make the biggest kill you can.

No need unless you’re big business trying to prove you can do it bigger, faster than before. New! Improved! Able to kill entire congregations with one continuous fire-burst! Fun for the whole family!

And yet the media wants to jump the gun, so to speak, on spilling the details about the killer. They give into our baser instincts and seek out all the dirty little details, pushing it on us like an overzealous Italian grandmother. Eat! Eat! Oh, sure you want more! Eat! There’s always more. Eat!

Some members of the media this weekend remind me of this guy I knew as a teen. He told me he was gonna trying to make a bird explode by feeding it nonstop. He’d heard that a gull would eat until the food source vanished. So, he’d feed ‘em and feed ‘em and feed ‘em, hoping they’d go POW, with guts flying everywhere.

In recalling this messed-up kid and his feeding fetish, I find myself wondering when that day comes that journalists stop reporting on happenings and start becoming a part of the story by distributing information they have no ethical business distributing, and who’s gonna be the one who takes their information and acts from that place we all have inside — that place where we want to see these sick bastards get what they got comin’.

No shortage of Americans thought Lee Harvey Oswald got his due. That’s who we were 50 years ago. I’m sure we’re further evolved in vendetta-wishes by now.

And then there’s the likely innocent peripherals. What about the parents of these shooters? What about their family, their friends? The people who had nothing to do with it, who knew them before they went all mad and wanted to kill innocents, who maybe tried to get them to find help, who tried to be a part of the solution when they had no idea the magnitude of the problem? What about them? What if they were spurned by a system when they sough help, a system lacking support for sicker individuals, a system that often never sees the signs that are all too plain to see?

When will those family and friends begin being the retribution committed by someone connected to victims in a spree killing?

These aren’t unthinkable scenarios. Many have been written in the annals of TV and fiction. We understand retribution and revenge. It’s an entirely human reaction. It’s there in the Bible — an eye for an eye. We blame parents for children, but not every parent is to blame when we have chemical dysfunction, doctors overprescribing, and other possible neurochemical factors. We don’t know who’s to blame. That’s why we wait on the investigation, to be sure we’re not jumping to conclusions that come consequences.

Let the amateurs speculate. Journalists’ jobs ought to be to aggregate the available information, put it into context, and dispel the sensationalist details that give nothing to the real story, which we the consumers do fine conjuring on our own.

But we all know that’s not in the media’s interest. It’s big business now, and it’s tough to be a dinosaur in a digital age.

They’re the kid at the party who’s trying too hard. Only, the kid at the party never gets anyone killed.

Journalists, and the news media, owe us better.

*If you’re gonna get on me about calling a shooter “insane” because you’re a proponent of mental health, well, good for you for defending mental health issues, but no one sane picks up a weapon and fires, wounding 70 innocents. Nobody sane does that. So, let’s call it what it is, and instead of getting all offended he’s being called nuts, fight for the care he should have had long before he snapped. I’m not gonna fucking mince words.

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4 Comments

  1. JT
    Posted July 22, 2012 at 10:16 pm | Permalink

    I don’t like how so many people co-opt the story to push their own agenda i.e. Rick Warren claiming the deaths are because of lack of religious education, pro-gun people saying that if everybody was packing they could have shot the assailant, gun control people saying this is why we need to take all guns off the street, angry white male apologists saying male helplessness causes this, others saying white men cause all the problems, etc. etc. Its almost like some people are so politicized they can not just think of the tragedy first and see it through the eyes of the victims …

  2. Lee
    Posted July 25, 2012 at 5:00 am | Permalink

    Hi Steff,
    Just had to congratulate you on this blog.
    Well written, thought out, concise and thoroughly sensible.
    Keep up the good work!
    Lee.

  3. Catherine
    Posted July 29, 2012 at 5:25 am | Permalink

    Agree on most fronts, only sad to hear that perhaps you understood the media or gun control to be the problem in this tragedy.
    You accurately (yet rudementerly) accessed that “only a nut” would shoot that many people. I hope soone the scope will be widened to deal with the mental health issues that plague our country, that are treated as illnesses to be ashamed or embarrassed of (and this theatre shooting certainly doesn’t help cast a more positive light), so individuals this elves and the people around them have the courage to speak up and direct the appropriate people to the individuals most needing the help, before the are too far gone to even reach. This is a serious lapse in health care in the United States.

  4. Posted July 30, 2012 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    There are many things to be disappointed over where this story is concerned. I think JT mentioned one of the big ones, which is ideological opportunism on mainstream media by those who have large audiences and political agendas. But, we expect that kind of thing in this age when people picket the funerals of soldiers. We expect these kinds of parasites using mainstream media as their own loudspeaker.

    What is most disappointing to me is the failure to connect the issues of gun control with the issues of health care. There has been, as far as I’ve read, *no* stories that connect these two issues, which must be linked. This is true surrounding this particular story, but also true in all other instances of NRA chest-beating and the stories that come out of it.

    My view is “you want to carry assault rifles and automatic handguns (both made to kill *people*) and buy ammunition in bulk as if you’re buying pints of milk and cartons of eggs? Sure. Then you’ll also pay higher taxes on (the astoundingly late U.S) universal health care. Because you, my friend, are higher risk to yourself, and to other people than someone who owns no weapons.” I mean, talk about your “pre-existing condition”. I’m sure that proposal would be seen as intrusive to freedom, Second Amendment, blah, blah, blah. But, that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth discussing by journalists, and by policy makers in an age (as you’ve pointed out very well) when the kinds of guns they make to kill people are very, very efficient.

    But, logical and critical thinking seem to have little to do with any of this.

    And let’s not even get into the connections between poverty and violent crime.

    Thanks for the post, Steff.

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