Journalists bemoan increasing familiarity with covering mass killings in the US


JOURNALISTS, particularly broadcast journalists, in the United States have been quick to respond to the latest mass shooting – by explaining that they are becoming accustomed to dealing with such stories.

Perspective, as with so much, becomes paramount. For a few years, in the late 1980s and early 90s, I took a break from journalism in the media industry to spend some time in health education. In the last few months, I have been back working with those in public health to draft brief guidelines on covering suicide.

That process involved dealing with individuals who had been bereaved when someone close had taken their own life. For each of them, such a sudden death was probably a unique experience, one they had never encountered before and one which they hoped they would never meet again.

For many journalists, just as paramedics, police officers, firefighters, and those working in hospital emergency services, death is far more commonplace.

Any journalist who has worked on a newsdesk covering even a relatively small geographical area, even on a title that is only published weekly or monthly, will have probably had to have dealt with at least one unexpected death each edition.

Some of those deaths may be murders, some may be in road traffic or other accidents, some in fires while others are suicides.

A few years ago, I called the police after an alarm at a neighboring home had been sounding for too long. That report led to the discovery of a body.

After years of, at first, calling the police or even visiting a local police station to check what had been going on in an area, then phoning their recorded messages and, more recently, checking announcements on official websites or social media feeds, the event was not, for me, anything unduly unusual. For those around me and living nearby, my matter-of-fact approach was equally shocking.

The (death) was not, for me, anything unduly unusual

Writing the notes about covering and ‘creating content’ about suicides reminded me of this – before reading reports from the US about how journalists and news organizations there had had to react when they learned about the shootings in San Bernadino, California, this week.

That anchors and their producers have become so accustomed to covering such incidents can be considered a further indictment of attitudes in the US towards firearms. That Buzzfeed editor Shani Hilton told The New York Times that financial and commercial factors now influence which multiple-killings were covered – ‘Part of it is a question of resources,’ she said – adds another dimension; whether that is one of tragedy or realism probably reflects one’s own news values and perspectives.

More passionately and personally, CNN anchor Brooke Baldwin wrote of her anger and frustrations having to cover yet another similar incident.

The incidents – and these reactions to how they were and are covered – also confirm the divide between those for whom deaths, especially violent or unexpected deaths, are rare and those for whom they are part of their daily, professional lives.

Journalists, as with health professionals, law enforcement officers or firefighters, may appear to develop a façade of distance in such circumstances – but without such a defence, the proximity to raw emotions could easily make their work impossible.

That façade does not mean that any such individuals do not have any empathy for the bereaved or the causes of any fatality. As BBC journalist Graham Satchwell discovered when he broke down during while on air during a report about the attacks in Paris, that reaction itself becomes news – even as far away from Europe as Channel 9 Australia.

Veteran journalist Anne Perkins, writing about this in The Guardianended her thoughts by saying: ‘Time to pass the hankies. Maybe it’s when I no longer need them that I should really start to worry.’

I agree.


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