August 5, 2012 in Opinion

Jamie Tobias Neely: Don’t blame the journalists

Jamie TobiasNeely
 

I’ve glimpsed on Facebook these last two weeks the occasional pledge to boycott news organizations that make any mention of the Aurora, Colo., shooter’s name. This impulse appears driven by compassion and sensitivity to victims’ families.

And yet it’s all wrong. Here’s why:

It is during life’s most difficult and traumatic events that we need the power of journalism most. At the beginning of a major tragedy, we overcome the anxiety generated by rumor and conjecture by gleaning facts that not only define the scope of the event, but also provide its reassuring limitations.

When my husband and I watched early news reports of the Aurora shooting, we were riveted by video of the former University of Colorado student’s apartment complex. At first, the newscast wasn’t clear about the exact location of the building, which eerily resembled the brick UC apartments where our daughter and son-in-law live this summer.

If that image had simply popped up in the swirl of random Facebook posts and tweets, our anxiety would likely have accelerated. Instead, journalists soon clarified that the apartment complex was located in Aurora near CU’s Anschutz Medical Campus, not CU-Boulder where our family members live.

We weren’t the only ones following the story very closely during the last two weeks. Americans named it the country’s top news story during that period, according to the Pew Research Center.

In the book “The Elements of Journalism,” journalists Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel call the human craving for information “the awareness instinct.” Human survival has depended on knowing when wildfires were raging, beasts were stampeding or distant enemies were making war.

Like our primitive ancestors, when tragedies appall and terrify us, we project that outrage on the journalists who report the news. For the story that emerged in Aurora, these journalists were real people who likely sacrificed time with their families to work after midnight and through the weekend to bring us the facts we wanted.

That Facebook outrage, masked as compassion, is misplaced: Journalists did not buy an AR-15 assault rifle and enter a dark movie theater. Journalists did not fail to warn the community about the threat a student posed; neither did journalists sell him two handguns, a shotgun or that assault rifle.

Critics, who rail against mainstream journalism’s increasing superficiality, obsession with page views and coverage of politics merely as sport, make good points. But what must not be lost in this criticism is an appreciation for the value of serious journalism.

It’s through the demanding, time-consuming work of journalists that we will find out who James E. Holmes is, what drove him and how he amassed his weapons. This information will give us clues about how to take constructive action to prevent similar violent events.

This story already makes clear that a young man can all too easily spend his days shopping online for 6,000 rounds of ammunition and booby-trapping his apartment – even after undergoing university mental health care.

Our society’s gun culture also needs to change: Although the number of violent deaths in America appears to be decreasing, it still dramatically exceeds that in most other developed nations, according to Duke University sociologist Kieran Healy.

None of these problems will be solved by omitting Holmes’ name from journalists’ stories.

With the help of ongoing news coverage, some of humankind’s most devastating problems have been tackled. During the 1960s, journalists helped to tell the story of segregation and the nonviolent protests of the civil rights movement. Rep. John Lewis D-Ga., one of its leaders, recalls in a video produced for the Newseum in Washington, D.C., the major role journalists played in that societal transformation.

“Without the American press,” he says, “the civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings.”

Jamie Tobias Neely, a former associate editor at The Spokesman-Review,is an assistant professor of journalism at Eastern Washington University. She may be reached at jamietobiasneely@ comcast.net.


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