September 14, 2014
What's news?
Gary Ledbetter
Posted on Dec 17, 2007

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DALLAS (BP)--According to the Associated Press, the deranged man who murdered people at the Youth With A Mission center in Denver and then at New Life Church in Colorado Springs left a message, one apparently borrowed from the Columbine murderers. It makes me wonder again if our hunger for "news" doesn't encourage insane people to go out in a blaze of infamy.

The multitude of news sources has created a level of competition that encourages foolishness. If one service behaves more responsibly while another runs toward the salacious, it often turns out that the second service is seen as more "cutting edge" or "in-depth." The more responsible service loses money and the salacious one becomes an example for others to follow. Don't forget it is a business. Our hunger for the details of human tragedy has helped create a lot of places that will sate that hunger.

When something horrible happens, viewers want to know why. That's understandable. I doubt, though, that 24/7 coverage on Fox News ever really answers that question. Sure, we might learn that this person was rejected for a job or that person was beaten by his dad or this other person wanted to impress Jodie Foster, but those answers don't change much for the survivors, at least not for the sane ones. I believe we should give a little thought to what endless and detailed coverage does for the crazy ones, though.

Here's a clue: With increasing regularity, rampaging killers are leaving manifestos of some kind so that we might "understand" the viewpoint that made it necessary for them to murder strangers. They do this because it gives them a moment of fame they never could have attained by doing something constructive. And we eagerly give them their moment.

Let's stop that. Give the victims' names if that's important, give the location and even give the ultimate fate of the killer. Don't tell us anything about him, though. I don't care what he said about what he did. His statement is either the raving of a mad man or the pathetic scribblings of a suicide. I don't even need to know his name. More to the point, troubled people in waiting don't need to see that they can get their names in the paper by instigating tragedy.

You see, news people shouldn't see themselves as outside the flow of the rest of human life. It's an odd phenomenon but occasionally a news or television person will give a comment that implies that he takes no cause as valuable and no responsibility for what happens after he files a story. He does this with a straight face. Maybe he wears a suit sewn by a person whose son attends Virginia Tech, perhaps he's full of food grown by people in Omaha, or maybe even he sports a healthy glow from his ski trip to Denver. All of us are connected but sometimes it's inconvenient to admit it. I don't think this is a common viewpoint, but the two or three famous people I've heard express this view make me wonder if this is the ideal standard for others.

News people are also humans, we are citizens of countries, we hold some kind of religious or irreligious faith, and we live in communities. We can't do our jobs as though none of this matters.

You won't read the names of these killers in the TEXAN, the newspaper where I work. I call on other papers and news services to consider this same policy. Of course, there always will be a place where one can go to fulfill his morbid curiosity for the details. To my fellow consumers I ask, don't look for it, don't go to those sites, don't read those news outlets. Let's stop making this irresponsible news coverage pay off. We have a part in making these details important to news outlets. If we stop drinking, they'll eventually turn off the faucet.

I don't know that a more considered approach to news coverage would have stopped this guy in Colorado or the ones in Omaha or Virginia Tech or so on and so on. What did we gain, though, from knowing their names? What was the benefit to anyone's life in hearing the tapes or seeing the letters they left behind?

I don't see any at all. But I can imagine the encouragement to violence that these little media fits might give to the deranged people among us. It's time that all media people apply their imaginations, and consciences, to the same question.
Gary Ledbetter is the editor of the Southern Baptist TEXAN, newspaper of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, online
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