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Just reporting a tragic story

I often wonder where the line between avaricious gossip and news reporting falls. If it falls at all.

In high school I was an editor for the school paper, features as it happens. This was the best job ever. Not only did it look good on college applications, include fabulous experience, and get me straight into J-school at a prestigious university but it was also loads of fun and very glamorous.

Our newspaper teacher took the newspaper very seriously. The side benefit was that Mr. G decided that even though we were teenagers, we would learn to run with the big dogs. He got us press passes and invites to real Media Events. For example, I went to movie screenings and got interviews with real Movie Stars. We covered not just school events, but community and real news, too.

Back then, you typed stories on a typewriter, sent them off to the typesetter, who sent back long, wound reels of copy. As an editor, I not only handed out assignments, ran many myself, and reviewed articles, I also did the layout for my section.

This involved generating headlines (and you can believe I knew my picas and never let a word or letter dangle sloppily, wasting valuable real estate), clipping the columns, and then carefully laying them out on the sheet (with help from the light table) before sending them out to print.

This was more than a job; it was an art.

There were no quick fixes, spell checks, or easy changes. When you sent off to the typesetter, the money meter started running. Therefore, before then, your articles better be aces. No factual errors. No typos. No crap.

My headlines were exact. My columns were perfectly aligned. I knew how to calculate a lower case n versus an upper case M. I knew the importance of measuring and divvying up column lengths. I knew how many words filled how many inches.

Later, as an editor at a publishing house, my page count estimates from rough to final were always the most exact. This comes from the old journalism calculating background.

Newspaper wasn't a hobby. This wasn't for fun. This was real news, folks. And we took it as seriously as our teacher taught us to.

Our stories were reporting. We took the story, wrote it factually, then double-checked the facts. Our goal was to provide information. Mr. G. counseled us over and over about never, ever being in it for fame, for glory, for salacious gossip.

I still remember him admonishing us to report report report...not guess. Not titallate. Not speculate. Educate and inform. Period.

I went to college with this old-style exacting mindset as far as journalism went. And that is nothing at all like what I found. Ultimately, I transferred to another college within the university.

I left for a variety of reasons: youthful arrogance and frustration about being taught the basics again when I felt I had already mastered them, disgust with the casual and sloppy attitudes of my peers, calls from my other love (science) and a newfound appreciation for learning, which I discovered as fun again.

I can't let go of the corner of journalist in my heart, though. I absolutely will not read certain papers for their incredibly sloppy reporting, horrid typos, and pathetic headlines (with widows and orphans, no puns intended).

And I can't let go of the ethics Mr. G hammered into us time and again.

That's why I watch this sensationalistic newstainment with such horror. Reporters aren't informing or educating us any longer; they are manipulating and inflaming us.

(And worse...they are attacking their harshest critics and largest competition: bloggers.)

They throw in prurient details to hook rubberneck attention. That's not just reporting; that's not the public's right to know.

That's actually capitalism. And I'm sick to death of "free speech" and "public's right to know" being thrown out to support a greedy grab for attention, and thus earn more money for the paper through wider readership.

I know how cut-throat the business of journalism is. I know how competitive. I understand economic principles, and I understand how advancing media has threatened traditional means of news delivery.


This isn't journalism.

This is yellow journalism.

For example, recently an office building in Houston burned down, killing three people and injuring six, including three firefighters attempting to rescue people trapped in the building. The initial story was actual reporting: an office building in Houston is on's at X location...the fire was discovered and reported at X is currently a four alarm blaze with X number of firetrucks on the scene...the cause is unknown as is whether anybody is left in the building...firefighters are in the building and trying to determine if everyone has evacuated. Who. What. Where. When. Why. How.

Very quickly, reporters learned that there were six injuries from the fire, and three fatalities. They reported this.

And reported it. And reported it. They pre-empted the news and subsequent programming for a while to stand beside the burning building, showing the scene. They talked and talked, speculating, frantically grabbing witnesses, firefighters, anyone. They began saying anything to fill the airwaves and time. They panned the same scene over and over.

The next step in the story is where the ethics come: what more do YOU need to know? What more do you have a right to know?

Do you need to know the names of the people killed and injured? Do you need to see pictures/images of them, alive and dead or injured? Do you need to know who they left behind, the status of their life, where they lived? Do you need to hear snippets of opinions about the sort of people they were?

Is this a memorial? A tribute? Reporting? Do we have a right to know?

Or is it emotional manipulation for our attention, our market share?

See, one reporter released the information that one of the women killed in the fire had a daughter, a minor, who had been sexually molested. The mother, now deceased, had been scheduled to testify as a key witness in the case the next day. The poor traumatized daughter became an intense focus of predatory interest. Again. This time, legally. This time, by reporters and the public.

I admit it. I had been about to tune out until I heard that. Then I tuned back in. My stomach flipped. And flopped. I felt nauseated. I got choked up. I thought about that little girl. I thought about that mother. My mother's heart shattered, thinking of what her mother must have thought, knowing she was leaving that girl behind, in this situation. I became emotionally invested in the situation. I tuned in to learn more about how this could have happened, who was responsible. I listened to interviews and read stories. I paid attention. I cared.

I followed up. Alarms didn't sound, people didn't get a warning, many were trapped and had to be rescued by ladders:

Dawn Herring was in a fourth floor office when the fire started and said she never heard an alarm.

"We didn't realize there was a fire going on until I heard somebody scream," Herring told CNN Thursday. When she and her colleagues tried to leave, they found the hallways and both stairways filled with smoke.

"We had no other choice but to go back into the office," Herring said. "We finally broke a window and we waited and waited. It seemed like forever for the fire department to bring the ladder over to our window.

I researched building code (via my husband) and was appalled to learn that buildings don't have to update to any kind of current codes due to a loophole. There weren't adequate alarms or sprinklers in the building, but it was all legal. They had just passed inspection. The building management company released a statement, basically declaring themselves innocent of any responsibility. The mayor of the city also released a statement, in response to public outcry and concern about safety in other buildings, promising to work to upgrade safety requirements and ensure the safety of his citizens.

Spin. Spin. Spin.

Mostly, I felt disgust. I felt a tremendous amount of disgust for the reporter who released details about the child who lost her mother.

And yet, possibly this tragedy will motivate and galvanize improvements, prevent other tragedies. I somehow doubt it, but possibly. At the least, some building management companies might decide to mitigate risk and add additional fire and smoke detectors on their own. Insurance companies might decide to require it for premium holders.

Do you want to see this? Need to see this? Is it integral to the story? How would you feel if this was you? Someone you knew and cared about? Can there be dignity in tragedy? Should there be? Should cameras shut off, look away from this?

But did we need to know about that little girl? Did we need to know so many personal details? Was that necessary to care, to take action?

Where is that line between avaricious, harmful gossip intended to titallate and gain market share versus report to inform and educate?

In my opinion, the story should have stopped with the fire itself: where, when, why, and how. The how is provoking enough: a nurse at a cosmetic surgery office deliberately set fire to medical records in a crazy attempt to save her job because she hadn't completed required paperwork for a March 29 audit.

I'm not even sure we needed to name the people lost, although sentiment says it can be a fine tribute. I would hate it though. I would hate to see my loved one's name and face on the news, being sold to a hungry public. But I do understand how names and faces make it real, and lend weight to possibly needed changes to prevent other tragedies.

However, the buck needs to stop there.

Set the bottom line aside. Report ethically, in a quality way. The drive for continuous and instantaneous is probably not half as important as any of us think it is. I imagine if you create a quality product, market share will happen...anyway.

copyright 2007 Julie Pippert

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thailandchani said…
It occurs to me that much of this supposed reporting is designed to keep people's minds from the important things (like what Those In Power are really doing) and to instill fear.

Notice how much reporting appeals to emotions ~ creating either anger or fear ~ sometimes both.

I don't listen to those stories so I don't know the one you are talking about.

The one I've been unable to escape is Anna Nicole Smith and the "who's the daddy" mystery. This has taken up so many news hours that it's beyond description ~ and for what reason?

And what's been really going on while people are kept entertained with paternity mysteries?


Bones said…
For some strange reason, a disproportionate number of my closest friends are journalists. Their collective resumes include the AP, the Newshour with Jim Lehrer, CNN, a Pew news service called, NPR, and the Washington Post. These are respected news organizations; we’re not talking Fox News or the National Enquirer. Each of my friends, to a person, (even the folks at Pew) says that the only thing the bosses at news organizations care about anymore are ratings. And the only things that drive ratings are sensational stories. Readers are less likely to want to be bored by the facts when they could be enamored with an impressionist painting that tells the story, or so the (lack of) current journalistic wisdom goes.

I don’t think it’s a conspiracy to keep us from knowing the truth or from focusing on what is really important. I think it just sells papers, gets more hits, grows readership, and sells ad space. It’s a gross violation of journalistic ethics in the same way medical doctors pushing certain brands of prescription drugs to make more money are a gross violation of the Hippocratic Oath. It’s not about informing us (or making us better, as the analogy goes). It’s just about making money. Or keeping up with the Joneses.

And it does cause problems. On 9-11, there were so many sensational and factually incorrect news stories about car bombs in DC, the Supreme Court having been bombed, the National Mall being ablaze, and at least one report of neurotoxins in the subway, that I wound up walking for hours (instead of taking the subway) from my office in the US Capitol to my wife’s office. I couldn’t get the straight dope, and I was working for CONGRESS, for crying out loud.

Or, those spineless executives from MSNBC that kept Don Imus on for a good week after his racist comment. Imus’s ratings where HUGE the week after he made those comments because everyone wanted to hear his apologies. Then they fired him after the ratings dipped. If they wanted him gone based on what he said, they would have fired him the next day. It wasn’t until Imus’s remarks starting costing MSNBC money that they canned him.
Gwen said…
Hmmm. Hmmm.

I imagine it's difficult to be a journalist with ethics these days, because even if your intentions are "good," what you're doing is easily twisted into the ugliest shapes. I can see how a journalist would believe that sharing the information about the sexually molested girl or the building codes was somehow a decent thing to do, since so much of it is a matter of very subjective perspective. Maybe he/she was hoping the girl would still be able to receive justice. Maybe he/she thinks buildings need to have stricter codes*. But the sum total of all those details, and the standing outside the building waiting for something more sensational to happen, blunt or taint whatever motives a journalist may have had. And maybe his or her motives were really just to garner ratings.

Because it's hard to know, really, I return to my belief that ultimately, the consumer is responsible for what she sanctions through consumption.

I don't watch the news, ever, because it all seems like either fluffy or sensationalistic crap to me. It's not that I'm uninformed. I just don't watch television news. That's all I can control.

*and I have to jump on the Tangent Train here for a second to say that one of the things that bothers me most about our current national culture is the idea that all risk can somehow be legislated away, that if we just pass enough laws, install enough mechanisms of oversight, we can somehow remove the reality that life is dangerous and we're all going to die. It's the worst kind of arrogance, to me, who happens to be a control freak, so I should understand, maybe, but I don't.
Kyla said…
I agree with you, the girl should never have been brought into it. Her life is difficult enough without that kind of publicity. It is awful. I don't think journalism is true journalism any more. I think it is spinned by who ever reports it. Honestly, I don't read or watch the news, I can't. It is so much sensationalism and fear-mongering and explotation. If there is something I really need to hear about, I do, but for the most part I shy away from it.
IzzyMom said…
The little girl's story was not central to the fire story in any way. Could it have been spun into it's own news story? Perhaps.

But I agree that airing such personal details of her life when she's just lost her mother is vile, no matter the intent.
Julie Pippert said…
Every single one of you have said what I think. And why.

And as Bones points out: it leads to false conclusions and error and confusion.

Locally they did a poll about perception of crime. The perception was really far off from the true numbers!

It is just about money, now.

It's a car wreck. They keeping put it in front of us and it's some degree of human nature to have to at least sneak a peek. But I bet if they quit it, we'd watch anyway.

As a rule, I don't watch TV news. I also don't subscribe to any newspapers. I find the news here utter crap---even worse than any place else I've ever lived. I listen to a couple of radio news programs, and otherwise scan the Internet, trying to hit various sources to get different angles.

P.S. Gwen, I agree you can't legislate away risk. For example, I don't support requiring motorcycle helmets. I'd never, ever ride a motorcycle without a helmet, but this "pad ourselves" to death (no pun intended) from any possibility of harm sometimes...well. Anyway.


Just because in 1979 one fire and smoke alarm in the hall was adequate or thought to be adequate, we now know better. This isn't a "legislate all risk away" thing. This is a "don't be stupid...use good sense...we know better...add in more alarms so EVERY employee can hear it." We have more people now, more gadgets, more noise. We need some measures to keep up.
K said…
Did we stop teaching the ability to discern information? Obviously we stopped teaching ethics.

My third grader just learned about all of this so I know that it is being taught some place.

Lack of empathy, egoism, and of course money all drive what passes for journalism today. We allow it to continue because we don't value honesty and integrity. We're told that the truth is subjective, but it's not. The truth (regarding journalism)is actual fact. Who. What. Where. When. Why. How.

What a great experience and teacher you had. I love your blog because when you write articles you do your homework. You present all the info. not just what suits your point.

Ethics should extend to opinion writing as well. You're suppose to back up opinions with fact.

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