The media ruin lives. We know this to be true; it’s been well-documented on film and television, even if inadvertently.
You know the scene: A thing happens, either a sensational thing (child kidnapped, lovely young woman found beaten and stabbed) or a Significant thing (white woman passes for black, movie star interviews drug lord).
The sensational thing often features grieving relatives, stolid police officers and pictures of volunteers combing the forest searching for clues. Microphones are shoved into unwilling faces, houses are surrounded by camera trucks, family members quickly become media shorthand — the sad father, the noble mother, the suspiciously chatty cousin.
They’re actual people leading actual lives, but we don’t care about that. We know about them what we are trained to know. We have three facts and we extrapolate into a whole human being. Our brains are victims of the media too.
And of course lives are ruined.
The Significant thing often features tame experts opining, usually while not in possession of all the facts. Dueling ideologues debate — on the one hand this, on the other hand that. (There is never a third hand). Often, the experts make assumptions about the humans involved, assumptions that are accepted as fact by many people.
So we’re dealing in symbolism. We’re dealing with people who are the unwitting avatars of some social dilemma. They’re the face of racism or the face of people standing up to government intimidation. They’re the face of rape or the face of refugees or the face of anguish in a coal mining disaster.
But of course they are also real human beings, who lead real lives and have real parents and real children and real bosses, and if they have cameras following them everywhere and cable news stations running the same one-quote loop over and over again, and some op-ed writer implying dreadful things about them — well, their lives are ruined. They have to change their phone numbers, delete their social media accounts, move to Brazil.
The media sort of know this. After all, they bring us the images of disorganized press conferences, chaotic perp walks, phalanxes of photographers standing in disorderly rows. We can hear the screaming reporters and the terse “no comments” repeated hundreds of times.
This from reporters who think that “how did you feel when” is a probing question.
The media will argue that The People want this kind of coverage — when they’re not distracted by the latest celebrity divorce or sex tape. (Although the sex tape thing seems to have run its course, perhaps because everyone has one now.) They want the missing blonde tourist, the cheating politician, the video of a car chase.
The audience, sadly, is not particularly interested in defense contractors taking bribes, Chinese children making iPhones, or even scientists discovering the visible light emitted by black holes. (That just happened. Did not make the evening news.)
Newspapers are mostly owned by large profit-seeking entities. They want to maximize returns while minimizing expenses. “Expenses” often include people, who are costly and often whiny. So yes, of course, this is America, and that’s the way we do things. And if people want big-J journalism, there are always a few places willing to maximize that profit center too.
OK, fine. I get it; we all get it. The question remains: Why do the media get all unctuous about “the public’s right to know” when they are ruining people’s lives?
You’d think, by now, that some media organization would have at least formed a blue ribbon panel to look into this. You’d think the Poynter Institute or the Columbia Journalism Review might push for a conference of all relevant organizations, from the National Enquirer and TMZ to Scientific American and the New York Review of Books. The goal: How to stop ruining people’s lives.
One suggestion comes immediately to mind: pool reporters. Media companies hate pool reporting because it prevents them from adding their secret sauce, their anchorhuman standing in a front of a memorial for the fallen or a destroyed church. Disaster happens, and famous faces congregate. The idea that their cameras, their repetitive questions, even the anchorhumans themselves, might be ruining lives, does not occur to them.
Or how about a Hippocratic oath for media people? Just a little “first, do no harm” pledge. People who first, did harm, might get fired from their jobs. Or even jail time; that would be good. When Rolling Stone falsely accused “Drew,” as it called him, of raping an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, was the magazine required to make him whole? It was not. His name is known by many people and can be discovered with a little google spying. And you try to get a job with a rape on your resume.
Or Anthony Weiner’s penis. I mean, it’s a mistake, but did he need his life ruined for it?
I’ve been in the media for 50 years. I have seen ethics rules get tighter and more diligently enforced. I have never seen this issue addressed, even tangentially. We follow the law, and the law is guided by the First Amendment, which allows for free, vigorous debate on the issues of the day. Which is good. It also allows the media to ruin lives. Which is bad.
Self-policing is the only answer. The media has to be as candid about itself as it is about the people and institutions it covers. Media companies have to do something about the whole mess, a mess that continues and continues and…
“This is David Davies on scene at the courthouse/villa/blasted landscape, reporting to you live exclusively from the site of today’s tragedy, a tragedy that will change the way we think about forests/toddlers/cheese. I am standing here next to a guy in a blazer and a woman in a perky suit, and they are all talking about what I’m talking about, which means it’s important because everyone is talking about it. Here is some footage of a shoe, a poignant reminder that disaster can strike at any time. Meanwhile, we await a tear-stained relative who can be convinced to make herself look sufficiently pathetic. Then some footage of bodies being carried somewhere by somebody. If we haven’t ruined a life by 5 p.m., I’d be very surprised.
“We seem to blocking someone’s driveway. It’s all right, ma’m, we’re the media. Oh, she’s running away.”
Photography by Tracy Johnston
Marketing and explaining things by Michelle Mizera