Inward Look Teen Shootings Cause Media to Wring Hands over Coverage
Constable, Burt, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)
Byline: Burt Constable Daily Herald Columnist
News doesn't just happen.
It is the end result of tumultuous, often esoteric debates about blood, guts, morals, the public's right to know, our need to know, the future of our children and the bottom line.
So when another troubled teen shoots up a school, the media do a lot of hand-wringing.
The Daily Herald's coverage of last week's shooting in Oregon featured a front-page photo of people hugging. The Chicago Tribune built its front page around a color photo of a bloody student and a photo of the young suspect. The Chicago Sun-Times made national news by pushing the graphic photos and story off page one out of concern that "front-page treatment could have harmed or frightened vulnerable children" or even encouraged copycat crimes.
"Those are tough calls," says Edmund J. Rooney, an award-winning newspaper man and professor emeritus of journalism at Loyola University.
"Every negative story that comes in, if you stop and think about how many are going to be negatively affected, you wring your hands and you could end up not printing anything," Rooney says. "The main thing is to get the story out."
Newspapers can't foster censorship because then "I'm afraid cops will start not giving out information out of fear of copycats," he adds.
That said, Rooney applauds the decision of Nigel Wade, editor in chief of the Sun-Times.
"I respect and agree with their play (of moving the story off the front page)," Rooney says. "I think it is admirable."
And certainly a crowd pleaser.
"It's very heartening," says Wade, noting the Sun-Times phones were jammed Friday with calls from parents, teachers and others who praised the move.
Wade says he weighed the school story on criteria applied to any story: "Is it accurate? Is it fair? Is it necessary?"
The story met the first two provisions but fell short of qualifying as necessary, in part because the shootings occurred in Oregon, Wade notes.
Not everyone buys that.
"I think the Sun-Times was very, very disingenuous with that self-serving 'To Our Readers' piece on the front page and then to splash it all over pages two and three," counters Ed Planer, former head of NBC news and chairman of the journalism department at Columbia College in Chicago.
While acknowledging that media coverage can lead to copycat crimes, Planer says that doesn't mean we can ignore them.
"Back in the '50s when I covered the civil rights movement for a television station in the South, we'd get calls from people who'd say, 'If you didn't give these people publicity, it would all go away,' " Planer says. "Wrong."
"The story belongs on page one," says Bernard Judge, a veteran reporter and editor who is now editor and vice president of the Law Bulletin Publishing Co. "It's major news and you shouldn't underplay it."
TV, movies and music videos that feature "stylized violence" might spur copycat crimes, but "I don't view it as a newspaper problem," Judge says.
Some newspaper editors do.
"I don't go along with the philosophy that news is news and let the chips fall where they may," says John Lampinen, executive editor of the Daily Herald. …