Everybody is too busy right now consuming the Virginia Tech slaughter coverage to accuse the press of going overboard. But come tomorrow, those accusations will gather speed, and damnation will be heaved at specific journalists and media organizations for their excesses. Stories, interviews, headlines, opinion columns, and even anchor chatter will be judged as cruel and intrusive.
How far is too far? The gold standard for journalistic insensitivity was established in the 1960s by an unnamed British TV reporter who was trawling for news at a Congo airport. According to foreign correspondent Edward Behr’s 1978 memoir, the Brit walked through the crowd of terrified Belgian colonials who were evacuating, and shouted, “Anyone here been raped and speaks English?”
Cold. Very cold. Yet yesterday and continuing into today, reporters from around the country—make that around the world—are posing a slightly more polite version of the Brit’s question to the friends and family of Virginia Tech students.
If you don’t like the way journalists tromp on raw feelings of the injured and the grieving to get the big story, understand that journalists don’t like it, either. The public’s conception of reporters as exploitation artists, eager to violate any moral code in pursuit of a story, has been stoked from the beginning by reporters themselves. They’ve routinely resorted to fiction to confess their profession’s transgressions and those of their colleagues (The Front Page, Scoop, Citizen Kane, Absence of Malice, The Bonfire of the Vanities, et al.).
Yet journalists are more likely to whimper about the traumas done to their souls by all that they’ve witnessed—butchered corpses, abused children, burn victims—than to contemplate the ethics of how they got the stories behind those horrors.
There may be no tougher assignment in journalism than knocking on the door of a mother who has lost her young daughter to a killer and asking, “How do you feel?” Playing the news ghoul is made easier by numbing yourself to the anguish of the real victims with self-disgust. Another way journalists numb themselves is to slip the veil of compassion over their newsgathering practices. Today, the Hotline spotted this craven dodge in online postings to Facebook by ABC and NBC. Both networks extend their sympathies to everyone at Virginia Tech affected by the killing, but add, hey, if you knew Cho Seung-Hui, “we have anchors and producers on campus that would love to meet with you” (ABC), and “We have producers and camera crews nearby ready to talk to anyone who can supply information about him and his movements leading up to the tragedy” (NBC).
A commuter jet falls out of the sky in Indiana, killing 32 people. It’s a big story, but reporters don’t fan out across the land to collect the sorrows of the surviving families. The topic doesn’t fill the entire news hole. But if a student slays 32 young innocents, the press goes into overtime. Why should only the latter calamity rise to the level of a national obsession?
Because not all random, tragic deaths are equally horrifying. We handle accidental deaths by blaming fate, and then eventually make our peace. But murders committed at random discompose us at a primal level. They rob us of the false sense of security we use each night to tuck our children in to sleep. The Virginia Tech shootings also marked a new American death record, a detail that many outlets keep repeating to rationalize the news torrent they’re producing. Add to all of the above the fact that the lives stolen were still green, that none of the promise nurtured by loving parents can ever be fulfilled, and you’ve got immeasurable sorrow. And immeasurable sorrow breeds immeasurable interest—not just from journalists, but from news consumers as well.
There’s a thin line between responsible journalism and outrageous sensationalism, and bloodfests like the one in Blacksburg * tend to erase it. If the networks weren’t pinging Facebook for leads, if the New York Times weren’t compiling a “Portraits of Grief” for the Blacksburg kids right now—as I bet they are—and if the story came to a close tonight on Anderson Cooper’s show, readers and viewers would riot. As reporters intrude into the lives of the grieving to mine the story, they should be guided more by a sense of etiquette than ethics. If they don’t risk going too far, they’ll never go far enough.
Thanks to Mark Feldstein, John Dickerson, Stephen Bates, Timothy Noah, and Josh Levin for their insights. Last line in the column adapted from a quip by Michael Kinsley. I don’t really want to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)