Apr 24, 2007

Journalists need to embrace civility

by David Thompson, News Reporter
Click. A woman crying. Snap-pop-click. Somber men gathered around a flagpole. Snap. An observer wringing her hands. Click. Three girls praying. Snap. Well-dressed executive types looking off into the distance. Snap. Click. Pop-snap.

 Add in people noises. “Excuse me, miss…” “Sir, can I get a statement…” “Pardon me, what exactly…” “I’m sorry to intrude but…” Microphones shoved in an elderly man’s face. Video cameras zooming in on contorted faces. Boom mic’s hovering near the crying masses.

This scene has come to be alarmingly representative of any national tragedy that fits or exceeds the proportions of Virginia Tech’s calamity on Monday. Journalists clamoring to get the “inside scoop” and the best quotes. Editors screaming that their reporters are sunk if they don’t get quotes. Television staff hurriedly setting up near the most distressed areas to get good visuals.

And it doesn’t stop there. The inevitable speculation about the breakdown in security. It happened with 9-11. It happened with Columbine. And it’s happening with Virginia Tech. Why was there a two-hour gap? Why did the email come so late? Why was there an email at all, and not some kind of alarm system? What should have been done differently?

The questions will come; they even have to come. The questions aren’t the problem. But the problem is timing. And timing is an impossible taskmaster to the news media.

Here it is, simply. In the media, if you don’t get the scoop as fast as the other guy, you’re toast. That’s that. But if you get too close too soon, you’ve got wackos like me calling you insensitive and bloodthirsty.   

I appreciate the delicacy of the journalist’s position – I am one myself. And given the circumstances at Virginia Tech, I can tell you honestly that I don’t know what I would do.

One thing, though, overrides concerns about promptness and deadlines, and that is the virtue of civility. Even if it’s purely for selfish reasons, courtesy never hurt anyone. I don’t ever believe it to be the case in journalism that, if people’s privacy is respected, the finished product will be worse off than if the courtesy had not been extended. Chances are, it will turn out better.

Now, don’t get me wrong — when investigating a financial scandal or corruption in government, there are some very difficult questions that need to be asked, and depending on the situation, “going for the throat” might be necessary. However, none of the victims of this tragedy committed a crime in being killed. And none of their friends or relatives committed a crime by loving them.

Digging deep into their wounded souls is a job for friends or counselors, not bulldog journalists. Sure, by plunging a hand quickly into an open wound, you get the blood before it dries. You might get some dynamic quotes, outrageous expressions of anger and pictures of bitter tears. But by extending a friendly hand, offering a cool glass of water, associating with the grieving and even offering personal comfort before going for the scoop, you just might find souls willingly spilled, profound commentary rather than off-hand anger and pictures of human dignity amidst crisis. And having done something really good for someone else is much more substantial than some angry black words on a gray paper. We all know it, whether we admit it or not.

Journalists should be proud of their product, and appreciate the profound impact of the word, written or spoken, but the soul shouldn’t be sacrificed for it. Dignity shouldn’t go in favor of it. And shame on those who sacrifice other peoples’ dignity for it.

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