Most Americans are familiar with the caricature of bloodthirsty reporters swarming in packs around the recently bereaved: “You just witnessed the death of your entire family. Tell us how you feel!”
This persistent image of the insensitive, exploitative journalist has some basis in reality. It’s not difficult to find news sources that frequently feature the saddest or most lurid aspects of various tragedies. The questions are: when do these stories have news value, and what is the most ethical and appropriate way for journalists to cover them?
On Wednesday, July 10, a midafternoon thunderstorm roared through Louisville, leaving behind an inch of rain and 50,000 homes without power. The storm also smashed a tree limb into a 13-year-old boy who subsequently died of his injuries. Almost all local media outlets covered the story, but not in the same way.
Before we look at the coverage, we have to answer those questions. First, when are personal tragedies newsworthy?
There are multiple definitions of newsworthiness. A popular definition declares that news “has certain characteristics (including) timeliness, proximity … prominence … human interest (and) novelty.” Numerous dictionaries define “newsworthy” as “of sufficient interest to the public or a special audience to warrant press attention or coverage.”
The problem with the latter definition is that it is far too broad. If it is true that public interest is the only gauge of newsworthiness, then Sharknado and Free Slurpee Day should have been top stories everywhere on Thursday July 11. The same problem comes when we only use proximity, prominence, human interest and novelty: we end up with shallow stories of the surgical enhancements of local celebrities, among other things.
Perhaps instead of thinking about what the public is interested in, we ought to consider what is in the public’s best interest. That’s the definition of newsworthiness used by Grade the News, which asks “Will this story affect a lot of people for a long time?”
The Project for Excellence in Journalism says that journalism is storytelling with a purpose, and that it must “balance what readers know they want with what they cannot anticipate but need.” Despite all their professed dislike for “bad news,” the public seems to get something out of reading about other people’s tragedies. On Thursday July 11, the most popular stories on the local TV stations’ websites included ones about children injured in accidents, a mother and her children found dead in a creek, men accused of murdering children, and of course the story of the 13-year-old boy killed by the falling tree limb.
These kinds of stories can be seen in almost every news outlet (but as every parent knows, “everybody else does it too!” is no defense) and the audience can’t get enough of them. We news consumers can partially blame ourselves for excesses like the Casey Anthony debacle: if we didn’t watch it, the media wouldn’t cover it obsessively. Ratings drive the coverage. That’s precisely the logic behind the dictionary definition of “newsworthy,” not to mention the news executives who claim that they are just giving the people what they want.
But how do the people know what they want? First they must see it or hear it on the news. It’s a vicious cycle, to be sure—coverage drives interest which then drives further coverage—but the cycle starts with the news media, so it’s not entirely fair to place the full blame on the audience. It’s not as if viewers were flooding CNN’s switchboard and servers with demands for Casey Anthony coverage. Likewise, I seriously doubt that anyone called up The Courier-Journal or the local TV stations and said, “Could you please tell us more about that young boy killed during the storm?” Viewer/reader interest stems from decisions made by editors and reporters, who then use that interest to justify similar decisions. Of course, this is like serving raw noodles, thumbtacks, sawdust, and dead ants at a restaurant, then claiming that people really love to eat raw noodles. It’s the most popular item on the menu, right?
So newsworthiness really ought to be defined by more than just whatever ephemeral topics happen to be “of sufficient interest to the public” on a particular day. There is a public service component to newsworthiness, which means journalists ought to demonstrate to their audience the significance of these stories.
I asked editors and news directors at WHAS, WLKY, WDRB, WAVE, WFPL and The Courier-Journal to explain the newsworthiness of this story. Only WFPL’s Gabe Bullard and WAVE’s Bill Shory offered an explanation; WLKY’s Glenn Haygood said that it was too early to have this discussion.
Bullard, whose station did not cover the story at all, said that WFPL’s focus is on providing stories “of value to the audience,” and located that value in queries whose answers might have an impact on the larger audience, such as “Was someone responsible for not maintaining the trees, making limbs more prone to fall? Is safety during storms something the public needs to be reminded about?”
Shory said that, generally speaking, WAVE tries to “minimize coverage of family tragedies,” but there are at least three exceptions to that rule:
1) If there’s something to be learned from the incident that might prevent future tragedies
2) The incident resulted from a large-scale event that was a common experience for many viewers
3) If the incident brings to light an issue or problem that may continue
WAVE’s Jaimie Weiss did an excellent job covering an angle that actually affects the entire community: people flooding 911 lines with non-emergency calls so that actual emergency calls cannot get through. That is an issue that may potentially affect all of us, and so it certainly fulfills Shory’s second and third items on his very reasonable list.
But WLKY, WDRB, WHAS, and the Courier-Journal—none of whom responded substantively to my questions —had no angle other than the fact that the boy had been injured and eventually died. Reporters from all four news organizations quoted neighbors, some of whom described the horrific incident in detail.
As any journalist could tell you, there are right ways and wrong ways to cover a tragedy. However, the line between sincere human-interest storytelling and base exploitation is so broad and blurry that it’s more like a no-man’s-land than a border. I don’t believe any of the local news organizations fully crossed that no-man’s-land, but I do think some of their toes are touching it.
To some degree, as one local journalist said to me, telling this boy’s story is “a service to the community, his family, and him.” Certainly his death will have an impact on his family, his neighborhood, his school, and any other communities to which he belonged, and some local coverage did attempt to memorialize him as a real person with interests, not just another statistic.
But at the same time, what journalistic purpose does it serve to quote a neighbor describing the exact moment of the boy’s fatal injury, except to satisfy morbid curiosity? Isn’t it a bit disingenuous to report all of these details and then mention that “the family has asked the media and public to respect their privacy”? Where else would the public obtain all of these privacy-violating details if not from media reports?
The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics declares that only “overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy.” What public need is being fulfilled here?
The right way to cover this tragedy was Jaimie Weiss’ way. Gene Weingarten won a Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for his nuanced, detailed, sensitive feature article about parents who accidentally leave their young children to die in hot cars. What makes the stories written by Weiss and Weingarten stand out is big-picture reporting that places personal tragedy in a larger social context so that the audience might come away with information that is useful in addition to interesting. Local journalists should keep their examples in mind when writing their next piece about someone’s personal tragedy.
James Miller is WFPL’s media critic and a journalism teacher at duPont Manual High School.