An Open Letter to the National News Media: Stop Exploiting Tragedies

As soon as news of the latest U.S. mass shooting trickled out… The national news media rushed to the scene. This time it was an elementary school in Connecticut. Over 20 shot dead, mostly children. Horrible. Unthinkable.

The media machine kicked into high gear and the images began to flow.

How much detail are we as the public entitled to know?  Do we need the news media there at the scene asking traumatized children and parents, “How did that make you feel?” Do we need to see the weeping face of a father who’s just learned his child was killed in the rampage?

No. No we do not.

We’ve come to expect such callousness from the 24/7 cable news media stations. We expect them to “brand” any tragedy with a banner across the tops of our TV or computer screens, whether it’s “SUPER STORM SANDY” or “MALL SHOOTING” or “ELEMENTARY SCHOOL MURDERS.” We expect them to stay at the crime scene until every last child and parent has been asked how they felt about a deranged killer executing students and teachers. We expect them to drown us in these miserable images of sorrow.

Now it appears some of the network news stations – who used to take a “just the facts” approach to reporting the half hour of evening news  – have sunk to the same level. Let’s do “special coverage” of the tragedy. Let’s put frightened children and horrified parents on screen for hours and hours. It’s about ratings, not “news you can use.” It’s certainly not about people or compassion.

To all the reporters, anchors, station managers and owners who pursue ratings, not stories, there’s a few things I need to get off my chest….

Dear National News Media,

Why do tragedies like the Connecticut school shooting happen? What can we do to prevent such mass killings from happening again? Can you provide us with news and information to help us solve the problem?

Yes, we need to re-open the national conversation about gun control. Yes, we need to de-stigmatize mental health problems, to recognize people in trouble and get them the help they need. Yes, we need to look at these problems as public safety issues, not political footballs. You could present information and thoughtful commentary, and move intelligent conversation on these issues forward. You could, if you wanted to. But you do not.

That’s because YOU are part of the problem. The dumbing down and desensitizing of our society. You are turning tragedy into a media event. Old school journalism wouldn’t shove a mic in the face of a distraught parent or frightened child and ask them “How do you feel?” But you will. For ratings. Tragedy and loss of human life have become commodities against which to sell advertising. Against which to make a name for yourselves. To be first on the scene to air the most shocking images.

Is this why you went into the “news business” in the first place?

*****

I left journalism when I could no longer ask regular people to jump through hoops for a sensational story. I haven’t been proud of every story I’ve ever written, and the ones I’m least proud of involved not caring how the story impacted the person I interviewed. I knew at that point I had to get out of the business. It was headed down a dirty path I didn’t want to go. I put my press pass in a drawer and moved on to marketing communications. If this sounds holier than thou, it’s not meant to be. It comes from a place of having made mistakes and regretting them. Of having used bad judgment.

Now, true unbiased news reporting seems limited to local media, and those few journalists who remember why they got into the business in the first place. Isn’t that to inform and educate? To report the real news? Not to shock and frighten, and numb people to the horrors of the world?

I have no answers. But many things need to change or these tragedies will continue to happen. The way we are fed and consume “the news” needs to change. Public perception depends on it.

Otherwise, we will all be lulled when the horror of this latest mass murder subsides…until the next one. Then the media circus will start up with it’s “How did that make you feel?” questions and tragedy banners splashed across our TV screens again. Thank you for reading this.

7 thoughts on “An Open Letter to the National News Media: Stop Exploiting Tragedies

  1. Thanks for writing this, Heidi. I’m still reeling from yesterday’s events and not ready yet to have this conversation fully, but I agree with you on every level. Even while I was trying to absorb those first few minutes of coverage, trying to process what had happened, I was appalled by the behavior of some of the media people. The callousness and feigned concern with which they approached those directly affected by the tragedy felt almost inhuman – like some kind of automaton programmed to pursue the sound byte at any cost, incapable of feeling the human emotions of such events.

    Sadly, as long as there is an audience for this kind of sensationalism, there will be people willing to create and broadcast it. The change must start with the viewers, not the producers.

    1. So true Jamie. So long as there’s an appetite for this kind of sensational pseudo-journalism — and the media can sell our mindshare to their advertisers — it won’t change. Just part of a much bigger problem in our culture. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  2. We are the fools for reading, listening and watching. I’m just as guilty as the rest trolling CNN for any news of the situation for the first 24 hours. When I saw the kids being interviewed, I got physically ill and stopped. Until we change our behavior as mass consumers of media, things will only get worse. Great post Heidi!

  3. Great post! In addition, we need to look at reporting the facts vs. sensationalizing the tragedy. Through all this coverage, Lanza’s photo and name has been, and will continue to be, splashed around. He is becoming famous – clearly not in a good way, but famous nonetheless and his name will be remembered. Will this entice others to want to become “famous” by committing similar acts? I hope not, but it sure is something to think about…scary to think about.

    1. Good point Christine, these killers “enjoy” their time in the media spotlight, then we never hear anything else about what was wrong with them, what led up to the mass murders, nor how any of it could have been prevented. Agree the media NEEDS to do a better job of looking into mental health issues and WHY these horrible events occur. Let’s get mental illness out of the shadows, and get these families some help before the next tragedy occurs! There are stories to be told that could help inform the national conversation on mental health so our leaders can help make our schools and communities safer. It’s a public safety issue that demands a comprehensive approach from law enforcement, mental health and health care, education, communities — all of us. We all have a responsibility here. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  4. There are no words to accurately describe the horrific sensationalism our ‘news media’ craves. We have basically taught the public how to build bombs, how to get your name in the news, how to become a recognizable name for good or bad. I remember when the news was reported twice a day, in 30 minute segments including local, national news, weather and sports. For most of us it was all we needed to know. Did we need to know about this unthinkable tragedy? Yes – but we did not need to know how those affected felt – anyone with any compassion already knew and were already praying for healing. How can we get back to being a country of informed (not dictated to), intelligent (not being told what we need to know but knowing that we need to continue learning), compassionate and caring people who have a responsibility for ourselves to learn what we need to know, work to help those in need and impose strong, God centered values to our children and to recognize what they need and work to provide for those needs?

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