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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

"Why'd They Put THAT in the Story?"

Over at Slate, Jack Shafer offers a gentle defense of reporters who have been accused of going overboard in covering the VT story.  I generally agree with much of what he has to say -- reporters themselves often dislike doing so; the story is profoundly sorrowful and that creates an interest in a variety of details that reporters will naturally cover; there is a thin line between responsible and outrageous journalism, but "if the story came to a close tonight" because reporters stopped covering it, "viewers would riot," and reporters should err on the side of overcoverage rather than overcoverage.  The defense is gentle, as I said: Shafer doesn't defend every coverage choice, and neither would I.  (That goes triple for network news and the cable news networks, but I only qualify most of those as "journalism" under protest.)

I would add four things to Shafer's piece.  First, he is right to say that "[t]here 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?"  With a few changed details, I've done it, and it is extraordinarily unpleasant, although the family member is often far less put out and upset by such questions than one might think.  Second, I have met as many shy reporters as bold and extroverted ones; some people get into the business precisely because they are looking for a job that forces them to meet people and ask difficult questions although they would be more comfortable aone in front of a keyboard.  I usually spent as much time agonizing about picking up the phone and calling complete strangers to ask them questions as I did actually dialing. 

Third, while I can understand an image of reporters as callous, the ones I actually would be the most leery of are the ones who are wells of sympathy.  Shafer writes that one way "journalists numb themselves is to slip the veil of compassion over their newsgathering practices."  That seems not quite accurate to me.  Compassionate reporters are more like most politicians I have met: there is a genuinely sympathetic and friendly and warm side to them, but at the same time the other half of their brain is coldly ticking with thoughts of how you can be useful to them.  Their friendly and sympathetic behaviors are not lies or calcuations; rather, these individuals seemingly have two separate personalities operating on parallel tracks.  Similarly, these reporters are not slipping a veil of compassion over their newsgathering practices; it's not a ruse.  They are genuinely sympathetic, and the second they are done sincerely draining a source of every heartbreaking aspect of a story, they will turn to their computer and chortle at what excellent quotes they've gotten.  They're Janet Malcolm without mens rea.  If you ever encounter such a sympathetic reporter, rest assured that the sympathy is genuine, but under no circumstances should you trust him or her.

Finally, Shafer doesn't note one source of overcoverage in news stories.  I reflected on this yesterday as I saw some wrap-up package story on VT which quoted an Asian student there saying her parents were afraid there would now be an anti-Asian backlash.  I suppose it's possible, and certainly the reporter found someone who actually said it.  But it felt a little forced, as if the reporter were trying to force a narrative detail out of the story that was either out of place altogether or at least premature.  Don't assume this is all about the calculating and exploitative reporter on the ground.  Remember the editor!  From experience, I can imagine many a reporter covering the details he or she thought relevant and important and stopping there, and then phoning or mailing in the story, only to face some editor two hours before deadline asking: "What about anti-Asian bias?  Get something on that.  And what about [detail x]?  Did anyone say anything about that?  Go get me something.  And you're missing the following details."  And so on.  At least some set of the overkill details that end up in stories aren't becuse of the reporter, who might well make sound judgments as to what is appropriately part of the story and what isn't.  They're there because someone at a desk in the newsroom sent the reporter back out to answer every question they could dream up.  You can often spot such details because their placement in the story seems both forced and half-hearted.  You may say these reporters have thus abdicated their responsiblity.  On the other hand, don't law professors do it all the time?  How many "To be sure" paragraphs or half-hearted footnotes crammed into law review articles are the obvious result of some editor telling an author, "we need x, y, and z," until the author surrenders on some or all of the editor's demands?  The dynamic is a common one, in short, but it may often be invisible to outsiders.  If you're displeased at overcoverage of this tragic story this week, or at the inclusion of unnecessary and intrusive details, it might help explain the phenomenon somewhat if you're aware of the internal mechanics that contribute to it.    

Posted by Paul Horwitz on April 18, 2007 at 09:40 AM | Permalink


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Russell Baker has a great anecdote about this in his excellent autobiography, The Good Times, in which he recalls as a young reporter at the Times being tasked with calling the homes of passengers on a manifest on a plane that had crashed, in order to confirm that they were on board. He reached one woman and realized she hadn't heard yet, and when she began to catch on, he quickly hung up -- but he believed that his uncomfortableness with such tasks prevented him from becoming a great reporter.

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Apr 18, 2007 5:18:41 PM

This is a common enough reaction, and understandable, but with respect, I'm not sure it's right. You may properly question the etiquette of it; certainly one should approach such individuals with care and sensitivity, and that "camera in tow" ought not be turned on unless and until the family member consents. But as little as I may personally get from such interviews in many instances, I'm not inclined to say there is no value to them.

Aside from the demand argument -- readers seem to want and expect such interviews -- which I think is perfectly acceptable but something of an abdication of personal responsibility, I think one can make a positive argument that such interviews do add what one could reasonably consider useful information to a story. They personalize it; they give form and shape to a life lived and cut short, unjustly; they sometimes unearth details relevant to the crime itself; and so on. It may well be that the overall statistical story about crime is far more important than the personal details of individual crimes, and that reporting on the latter may distort perceptions of the former. But that is a criticism about balance, and it's not the same thing as saying those human details have no value. I think the "Lessons in Grief" stories in the NYT profiling the many, many victims of the WTC attacks did add something to our store of understanding of the precise costs of terrorist attacks on innocent civilians, and certainly responded to our desire to respond as human beings to a story whose toll was distinctly human in nature. I think some of the profiles of the victims of this week's terrible murders similarly fulfill useful public values and add to our store of information. You may ultimately disagree; that's fine. But I think many people either positively accept the potential value of such reporting, or concede its value in some cases, or vote with their eyes for such reporting, or at least would be willing to concede that the argument for including such details is reasonable, even if wrong.

If that's so, then we're just left with the mechanics. And if one thinks there is some value to such reporting, one must accept the actual mechanics of going out and talking to relatives of victims as a necessary part of that reporting. It may be a gruesome thing to do. So's open-heart surgery, or abortion, as Judge Posner once observed. So's providing a legal defense of people who have committed terrible crimes, which surely will include, among other things, interviewing and digging up details about victims and victims' families, and may include browbeating them on the stand. That they are off-putting actions for those who stand outside the activity, and sometimes troubling even for those who actually perform the activity, may lead us to count the costs of such activities, and to try to formulate reasonable rules for how to go about it -- and most reporters, in their self-regulating way, do just that, every bit as much as lawyers do if not more. But if there is some social value to these activities, the "ghoulish" or unpleasant mechanics of how we go about carrying them out doesn't necessarily make them "indefensible" or "unforgiveable."

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Apr 18, 2007 10:25:31 AM

I don't know whether "[t]here 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?'" -- but tough or not, the practice is ghoulish and indefensible. It's always amazed me that there is not more outcry when reporters do this sort of thing. If the family comes forward, fine (although even coverage of that is at least a bit exploitative); but to knock on their door -- with a camera in tow! -- or to call them on the phone . . . unforgiveable, really.

Posted by: Marty Lederman | Apr 18, 2007 10:08:38 AM

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