by Pete Mazzaccaro
There’s been an awful lot of bad news in the news lately. And when the news is bad, it’s always pretty big news and dominates our newspaper front pages, prime time cable news hours and our daily talk radio schedule.
Last week’s (seemingly) amateur terrorist attack of the Boston Marathon that killed three and badly injured scores of people was only the latest event to capture our attention and our news media. In fact, quite a few other big disasters, including an explosion at a chemical plant in Texas that killed more people and a devastating earthquake in Iran, were barely paid attention to as the nation checked in regularly to see how the manhunt for the Boston bombers was going.
With every tragedy, as the questions of motive – how could anyone do that? – start to wane, the questions and examination turn to how the media covers the news. Often, of course, that examination is focused not only on what the news coverage got wrong but whether the amount of coverage was warranted at all.
Whenever I’ve been asked about how I decide what we cover here, I try to explain that the decision about what is news, or at least what makes something a front page story, comes down to this: If you heard all the stories that are in the paper or on the news, which one would you tell your friend first in a casual conversation?
When a Hill resident was robbed on Highland Avenue, that was clearly the first thing most people would tell a friend or family member. It’s not hard to imagine.
“Hey, did you hear about the guy who was robbed on Highland Avenue?”
“Yup, happened last night.”
Those decisions aren’t always clear, but they often are. At least, when a story is a story, it’s often pretty clear.
The other interesting question, though, particularly in the case of terrorist attacks and mass shootings, in which infamy is arguably part of the goal of the criminals, the question turns to this: By making these crimes 24-hour news events, are we playing into the hands of the perpetrators? They wanted to make a big impact, and here we are giving them what they want.
That’s a tough question. The news media isn’t very good at censoring itself, nor should it be. If a news outlet has information, it needs to let people know about it. In our current culture of cable news, talk radio and the endless news cycle of the Web, it’s hard not to feel that even a story as sensational as the bombings in Boston is being covered too much.
In many ways, the news media is in a no-win situation. It must do its job and do so in a way that does not reduce its credibility. It must and should be sure it is doing everything it can to get the information it has to the people who are reading, watching and listening.
This is not to say that there is no such thing as overdoing it. “The New York Post” has been justly criticized for its, for lack of a better word, outrageous front-page cover that pictured two innocent bystanders who were identified by the paper as suspects. In addition, the rush to get the story first sent a lot of media representatives rushing to a Boston courthouse to witness the arraignment of a suspect who did not exist.
It’s difficult from keeping coverage of big stories like these from veering into the sensational. The fact is, these crimes are pretty sensational to begin with. Just relating the facts in cold, passionless detail is breathtaking.
There’s definitely room for improvement, but for the most part, I don’t expect the way media handles these stories to change any time soon. I’m not sure there really is a better way to do it.