Can We Police Ourselves?

Dec 28, 2012
Members of the media converged on Newtown, CT, in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook school massacre (above), and resident of the small town react to the news of the killings (below). Photographs by Sean D. Elliot, The Day
Members of the media converged on Newtown, CT, in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook school massacre (above), and resident of the small town react to the news of the killings (below). Photographs by Sean D. Elliot, The Day

By Sean D. Elliot

From the public’s reaction to the New York Post photograph of a man about to be struck by a subway train, to the horde of news media that descended on a quiet little Connecticut town in the wake of the tragic school shooting, along with the countless “indignities” so many in the public feel in the face of relentless news coverage, the question has been raised again about how to balance the freedoms protected by the First Amendment with a sense of privacy and personal decency.

It’s not like a media horde is news in and of itself. No matter where you are – a small Midwestern town leveled by a tornado, a Gulf Coast city washed-out by a hurricane, or a New England village visited by tragedy – the news machine will be there. 

I’m sure this has always been true, but in our ever-shrinking world it has today reached an extreme that rankles the sensibilities of many. How many journalists is too many? How personal is too personal? How public really is the public? 

It is one thing to hope for privacy on a public street when you are a celebrity, an individual who’s income is based on being in the public’s eye, but it is quite another when someone is forced by circumstance to live-out their personal tragedy in that same public space.

But then who’s job is it to enforce respect and dignity? The basic tenets of the First Amendment make it clear that the role does not fall to the government. There are laws regarding libel and slander that address issues of malicious or negligent actions. But when the news media is engaged in reasonably legitimate coverage of news (and there is no question that a mass shooting anywhere at any time is newsworthy), the responsibility then falls on the news media to police ourselves. 

Sadly, this appears to have become far too difficult these days. In days gone by the residents of Newtown could have expected an onslaught on a much smaller scale, and at a much slower pace. But digital communications and the modern-era news cycle have changed the equation. Journalists knew about the shooting in a matter of seconds, and because of a news culture that thrives on a sense of competition to be the first and the most dramatic, the horde descended and the people of Newtown chafed. 

I wish I knew what it would take to bring about change. I suspect a healthier business model for the news media might decrease some of that competitive drive. News outlets that don’t feel as if their very survival hinges on beating every other outlet to the punch might have the discipline to pause, and to take a moment to seriously consider the ramifications of their actions. Maybe the problem starts at the top, with the publishers and editors and managers and the message they send down to the newsroom. But I think the urge to cover a story, especially a story of national significance, is always going to be there. Many of us became journalists for the same reasons: a desire to serve the public good by bringing communities together through our reporting, in both the good times and the bad times that happen wherever we live. But today our definition of community is far less concrete; we live in a world community where the Internet and the 24/7/365 news cycle has forever blurred any lines one might draw. 

Newtown might be a quaint village in Connecticut, but Newtown is now forever digitally connected to the world. And because of that, the entire world is watching. Looking back on the days after the shooting, I wonder if we really needed quite as many messengers on the ground there as there were, or if it was just because Newtown is in such close proximity to the New York media empire that in a time or unspeakable horror the little town was just overwhelmed. By our actions we’ve made the assumption that the Newtown Bee doesn’t have the resources to do the story justice, so we’ll have to go there en-masse to each put our own spin on the drama. But now in hindsight I wonder: would we be better serving everyone if we were to put aside these instincts, and to find a way to shrink our footprint in places like Newtown and other small communities when tragedy strikes and they unwilling fall within the world’s spotlight?