Commentary

How (Not) To Cover A Massacre

I don’t see how I can fill in for Wayne Friedman on today’s “TV Watch” and not acknowledge Sunday’s massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. I call it a massacre, because that is what it was. To call it something else -- “attacks,” or even “terrorist attacks” -- reduces it to a media meme of mass shootings all lumped together on a spectrum that ranges from the lunatic fringe to existential threats.

Already media coverage is conflating Pulse with everything from Sandy Hook (a lone lunatic) to 9/11 and the ISIS directed or inspired Paris and San Bernardino massacres.

While the culprit said he was acting on behalf of ISIS, there already is evidence suggesting he may have had other issues. I call him a culprit, because calling him anything more gives media weight to his actions -- and that is not something I want to contribute to.

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It’s something I’ve been thinking about my whole life -- but more deeply ever since 9/11: What role does media play in any mass tragedy?

In the case of 9/11, I think media was a huge factor -- before, during and after. Before 9/11, I can’t help feeling that part of what has radicalized Islamic fundamentalists is the way media have disrupted their belief systems, and brought a dissident culture into their living rooms, desktops -- and, nowadays, the palm of their hands.

During 9/11, media -- chiefly television -- was as powerful a weapon as the commercial jets that crashed into the Twin Towers. Media distributed the carnage across the globe, giving Al Qaeda more weight and value than it ever could have had without it.

After 9/11, media coverage has had a mixed effect, enabling greater vigilance on the one hand, but creating more anxiety than ever before.

Worst of all has been the conflation of gun-related massacres as one integrated thing. It’s not. There are some common elements, like the ease of access culprits of any kind have to guns, especially the kind of assault weapons used at Sandy Hook, San Bernardino, Paris, or Orlando. But that’s where the analogies end.

And instead of contributing to a better dialogue over gun policy, media coverage of these events just exacerbates the problem. The stocks of gun manufacturers spiked, not crashed, on news of the Pulse nightclub massacre.

I’d be one of the last people to argue that the media have a collective consciousness. But I do think the more enlightened among the media should exhibit more of a conscience and treat maniacs for what they are.

I’m not saying they should be ignored altogether. No, quite the contrary -- they should be investigated, studied and used to prevent similar incidents. What they should not be, is treated as media celebrities. Their names, their images should be obscured, and they should be treated as something unworthy of personal media attention. The media should treat them like something that should be disposed of -- like garbage.
11 comments about "How (Not) To Cover A Massacre".
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  1. Gary Holmes from Gary Holmes Communications LLC, June 14, 2016 at 4:47 p.m.

    Great commentary Joe!

  2. Anthony Livshen from Centriply, June 15, 2016 at 10:29 a.m.

    "I’m not saying they should be ignored altogether. No, quite the contrary -- they should be investigated, studied and used to prevent similar incidents. What they should not be, is treated as media celebrities." 

    Great piece. The Tsarnaev brothers were covered like the Olsen twins... it really is a shame.

    I loved Anderson Cooper's viral intro of his coverage of the massacre. Neither a picture, nor the name of the culprit was mentioned; it was strictly the heartwrenching stories of the victims.

  3. George Simpson from George H. Simpson Communications, June 15, 2016 at 10:29 a.m.

    Interesting idea, but how does it square witrh "the public's right to know?" (another vague concept in journalism). Even if the AP and NYT said the shooter was a "20-something male from FLA," you know Gawker or the Daily Mail would lay it all out there.

  4. Joe Mandese from MediaPost, June 15, 2016 at 10:32 a.m.

    @Anthony Livshen: That's what I'm talking about. Good job, CNN!

  5. Tanya Gazdik from MediaPost, June 15, 2016 at 12:41 p.m.

    Great piece, Joe. And yes, Anderson Cooper got this one *very* right in his approach. 

  6. John Motavalli from Freelance, June 15, 2016 at 2:06 p.m.

    Joe, when Sandy Hook happened, I lived a mile from it. I could write an essay--and probably should--on what a media circus is was. It was the first time I'd lived inside that kind of intense media focus. There were 20 international media satellite trucks parked in the tiny Sandy Hook center, with wires snaking all over the street. After a few days, the Sandy Hook diner opted to ban media people, because they were rude, obnoxious and out of place. Someone started putting up NO MEDIA signs all over town. It was't me!) And after about two weeks, I had enough. I went up to a CNN anchor--I won't reveal her name--and told her off. Basically, I said you people should leave, there wasn't a story here anymore. And she spouted the most inane comment I've ever heard out of the mouth of a news person. "Our coverage has created enormous sympathy all over the world!" she exclaimed. "Why, I got a condolence telegram from Iran's Mahmoud Ahmedinejad just today." To equate the crocodile tears of that anti-American imbecile with genuine concern shows how out of touch these people are. Because of the intense media coverage, looky-loos from all over the NYC area were arriving two weeks after the event, hoping to catch a glimpse of the school or a bloodstain or anything. They started leaving flowers and teddy bears and junk all over the middle of town. It rained, it all turned into a congealed mess. I didn't recognize my town anymore. Did they contribute one iota to understanding of a horrible event? NO.

  7. Ken Kurtz from creative license, June 15, 2016 at 4:15 p.m.

    "In the case of 9/11, I think media was a huge factor -- before, during and after. Before 9/11, I can’t help feeling that part of what has radicalized Islamic fundamentalists is the way media have disrupted their belief systems, and brought a dissident culture into their living rooms, desktops -- and, nowadays, the palm of their hands."

    Really? Media causes radicalization?

    We would do well to understand that it is a fine line indeed between a radicalized Muslim, and a non-radicalized Muslim. Simply put, all billion Muslims worship the "prophet" Mohammad (a man that came 600 years after Jesus, performed no miracles, murdered infidel non-believers himself, and took among his many wives a 10 year old girl). He also wrote the Koran that all BILLION Muslims bow down to as their "holy" book, and which calls for the massacre of infidel non-believers as a legitimate, Islamic form of conflict resolution.

    Jesus sent his disciples out to spread the news of salvation through Him, and made it clear that they would be rejected. But in that rejection, Jesus merely instructed His followers to wipe the dust off their sandals, and lovingly move on to the next home. Not so Mohammad, or his Koran. It's death to them that choose not believe!

    Don't confuse the fact that most Muslims currently do not have the stomach to do what their "holy" leader and "holy" book instruct them must be done (slaughter infidel non-believers) with this silly, liberal idea that Islam is a "religion of peace."

    And make no mistake that more and more Muslims will radicalize (in the absence of media, I assure you) under the horrors of their own horrific "religion" and its promises of martyrdom to those that follow through and do what their leader Mohammad did, and called for in his Koran. KILL PEOPLE THAT BELIEVE DIFFERENTLY.

  8. Joe Mandese from MediaPost, June 15, 2016 at 4:34 p.m.

    @Kenny Kurtz, I didn't say media causes radicalization. I said I believe it has been a factor, and that radical Islamists have turned the tables by figurng out how to use media to spread terror, and increasingly, to recruit and radicalize others. I believe the free flow of open media represents a threat to any fundamentalist belief system, because it exposes followers to other ways of thinking.

  9. Joe Mandese from MediaPost, June 15, 2016 at 4:40 p.m.

    @George Simpson: Of course I believe in the public's right to know. I just believe media should be more conscentious about the role they play in influencing terrorist or maniac behaviors. They can inform the public in ways that don't make the culpfrits celebrities, feed their ego, or support theyr martyrdom. My recommendation is more along the lines of what Anderson Cooper did. Talk about the facts and anonymize or objectify the individuals as much as possible. At the very least, we can remove the media fame part of the equation out of their motives. 

  10. H Montgomery from Roxtec, June 16, 2016 at 10:23 a.m.

    Thank You Joe, well said.  I don't want to hear the name of the culprits over and over......

  11. Chuck Lantz from 2007ac.com, 2017ac.com network replied, June 16, 2016 at 7:04 p.m.

    Mr. Kurtz:  If you do some research, you will find that basic Islam does teach peace and acceptance of other religions. On the other hand, those seeking loopholes that "allow" them to kill others, including members of conflicting Muslim sub-faiths, can easily do so by twisting words and listening to so-called "expert" clerics.

    By the same token, the teachings of other major religions, including Christianity, can also be twisted by "experts" to include rationale that excuses, for example, death to homosexuals, slavery, wife-beating, and so on.  All it takes are a relatively few glib madmen with gullible followers from any number of religions to begin a terror campaign.

    One possible solution is to fight their crazed rhetoric with more reasonable rhetoric from Muslim clerics who are against the ISIS mindset. By giving those gullible followers an even louder and more widespread and - hopefully - more convincing message, at least some of them might change their minds about committing terrorists acts.  After all, none of them just suddenly decided to commit murders in the name of their faith, ... someone's words convinced them to do so.  

    In short; we should be smart enough to find ways to talk them out of doing what they were talked into doing. We should also be doing everything we can to jam, shut-down and disrupt their internet communication avenues. 

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