I was in college studying broadcast journalism when the space shuttle Challenger exploded. Seven crew members died that day. One of my enduring memories is coming back to the dorm and being confronted by a student in hysterics over the television coverage, which included constant replays of the explosion.
“You people!” she sobbed.
Astounded, I just shook my head and continued on to my room. I wished later I’d said, “You don’t have to watch this. No one is making you. Turn it off.”
I recall that scene every time there’s a tragedy, and unfortunately, there have been a lot of national tragedies since that day in January 1986. The latest occurred Friday, when a shooter killed 26 people – 20 of them young children – at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. (He fatally shot his mother before going to the school, and then killed himself after shooting the children and other adults.)
On Friday, I followed the breaking story mostly via social media. Once I found out how many casualties there were, and how many children were involved, I just had to back away from it all. On Saturday morning, I read the main story in The Washington Post and a sidebar about President Obama’s address to the nation with tears in my eyes. That was enough.
The first media-bashing post appeared in my social media feed not long after I put down the paper. Others soon followed. And again, I find myself wanting to say, “Turn it off.”
This time, I also want to say a few words in defense of journalists, particularly those who work for newspapers. The reporters and photographers I know don’t approach such stories with intentions of sharing misinformation or glorifying perpetrators. This type of coverage is the toughest, most anguish-inducing part of the job. In the frantic atmosphere of breaking news, journalists sometimes get things wrong. When they do, they move quickly to correct them. And they are hardest on themselves when they make mistakes. Keep an eye on JimRomenesko.com in the coming days and you’ll see what I mean.
Most of all, journalists are human. The ones I know cover tragedies with compassion, sensitivity and respect for the people involved. They aren’t thinking about selling a few more newspapers or getting a few more page hits or seeing how many likes, shares and retweets they generate. They’re thinking about bringing the news to you.