From AJR, July/August 1999 issue
Beyond Total Immersion
There's got to be a better way to deal with news events like the Columbine shooting, a television veteran argues.
By Ginger Casey
Ginger Casey, an Emmy-winning TV news veteran, spent 20 years as an anchor, reporter and documentary producer.
A S THE TRAGEDY IN COLORADO unfolded, I sat glued to my television set like so many others, seeing the tension of reporters, hearing the struggle in their voices as they relayed their live shots across the country.
Children killing children has become a horrifying reality in our country, exploding into our consciousness with the force of a crudely made pipe bomb. This story was huge. I knew we were about to witness another News-a-thon.
We no longer just hear about a tragedy on the nightly news, we become immersed in it: Littleton became as much a collective experience for our country as Princess Diana's death. But the push to immediately find meaning in madness has resulted in a skewed form of journalism that is becoming more and more prevalent.
We have turned catastrophic events into news "products," complete with story lines that are sadly predictable--first the raw facts, then the search for meaning, then the assignment of blame, followed by the final wrap-up, the reports bringing "closure."
"Coming up: Could the tragedy in Colorado happen here? We'll talk to the experts."
Journalists move quickly to find those who will interpret sketchy details. No sooner are the children herded out of the school by police than we are asking, "Why, why, why?"
The grief counseling industry had a banner season. Anyone with a few letters after his or her name was given a chance to talk to kids, or wax philosophic on the news about the mind-set of children they had never met.
"Coming up: Littleton struggles with the question--why?"
The search for instant meaning has resulted in a rush to facile judgments. Rap music takes the rap for inner-city violence; Marilyn Manson and video games are blamed for setting off troubled teens.
"When we come back: Has rock music gone too far?"
Liberals blame guns, conservatives blame culture, religious leaders blame family values, or lack thereof. There may be some truth in all the theories, but figuring out what ignites someone's emotional fuse is a complex process that does not readily lend itself to sound bites.
T HE NIGHTLY NEWS IS NOT fueled by good news; it is the out-of-the-ordinary stories that we cover, many of them bleak. Human suffering is high on the list--anguish makes for powerful images. Those emotions that drive us to be our worst selves make compelling stories.
I am sorry to say that when I started out in journalism, I felt a sense of excitement when someone broke down during an interview. I knew if they really came apart, I would get the lead story, and the boss would look upon me as that day's golden child.
Ambition is powerful, and news organizations bank on the career aspirations of new hires. Perhaps they know that in the beginning, reporters are just so darned excited to be on TV--"Did you hear that, Mom? Dan Rather called me by name!"--that the thrill will override our awareness that we may be inappropriately taking advantage of a tragic situation.
ABC showed a meeting of some of the Columbine High School students with the widow of the teacher who was killed. They were there to tell her, in front of the cameras, what it was like when he died. I watched as she sobbed into her hands. The network will no doubt say the widow consented to being videotaped, but I can't help but wonder: Should they have even asked? And was that woman really in any shape to consider what this televised meeting would entail?
Did some hotshot producer use that cheap, get-in-the-door line that "sharing her story" would somehow help others?
Part of the problem is how big we've become. Until just a few years ago, the media crowd attracted by a major news story was fairly predictable. Any nearby local TV and print reporters would be there, as well as the three network crews and possibly one or two wire service reporters. It usually meant about 20 to 25 people, tops.
Having been on the scene of disasters as both a local and an out-of-town reporter, I have to say that when those covering a tragedy live there, the reporting has an element of depth not possible for outsiders. Witness the local anchors and reporters in Littleton during the first few days after the school shooting: Their work was powerful and well done. They may have known children in that school, or lived in the community. It was, often, local news at its best--sensitive, knowledgeable, a conduit for the community.
Times, though, have changed. Now, when catastrophe hits, so do the media, usually by the hundreds. News is available 24 hours a day. Networks, cable, tabloid shows and local programs compete with print, radio and the Internet.
Their appetites are insatiable.
The networks' early dependence on local news stations quickly faded as flights were booked and crews dispatched to Columbine High School. Across the country, local news directors weighed their options: Should they send crews? Satellite trucks and live gear enable any station to have a local presence on a national story. Why wait for Dan or Peter or Tom to tell you when you can send your own anchor team or reporter to the event? Be live, on the scene, at noon, 5, 6 and 11, and show the folks at home just how far the bells and whistles of your new technologies have extended your reach!
Reach perhaps, but not necessarily touch.
In hastily thrown together media camps, dishes and masts arc skyward, while acres of cables snake along sidewalks. Coffee cups and fast food containers litter the ground. Reporters and crews are flown in, armed with a map picked up at the airport and a few phone numbers. The story becomes the backdrop, and as such, takes on an air of unreality.
The pressure is enormous. Chances are, correspondents have to be on the air within hours of their arrival. Back home, producers are yelling for video, often demanding video for "teases" before any reporting takes place. Journalists are rushed, crushed and pushed to the point that they can't even connect with what they are doing. As Littleton reeled in shock, one MSNBC anchor asked a young girl who had been hiding in the school if she had heard anyone "begging for their life."
B ACK IN 1989, I COVERED another school shooting, this one in Stockton, California, where a gunman opened fire on a playground filled with grammar school children before killing himself. The next day, hundreds of journalists camped in front of the school, waiting to see if any children would show up.
I was tapped on the shoulder. It was a woman I had worked with at a station in Los Angeles. She had been assigned to cover the story.
"Christ, do you believe it?" she asked, looking over the crowd. "What a zoo. It makes me sick." We talked for a few moments when suddenly she said, "Oh God, Ginger, I just hope no one gets a kid. I'm a mother. I can't stand it."
Well then, I told her, don't get one.
"You know how it is," she said. "If someone gets a kid, then I have to."
She was right, of course. If someone got a kid, she would have to as well. It's the way the game works: You don't want your competition to have anything you don't, and crying kids on camera are powerful images.
I looked around as she walked away and saw that several reporters had already broken from the crowd and were going door to door looking for witnesses. Reporters with any shame at all at least had the decency to pretend to be sheepish; younger, less-experienced reporters boldly knocked on doors with a sense of entitlement. I knew what they would say, I had said it myself, and at times had even half convinced myself I believed it. "There are so many people concerned.... At a time like this, it sometimes helps to talk"--as if the media were some kind of confessional font.
I swallowed my shame for knowing that their heartbreak would be my good career move.
N EWS MANAGERS AND BOSSES sit at their desks, channel-surf the competition, compare pictures and coverage. They are safe from the emotional consequences of the world they cover.
They view a newscast as a body of work, made up of separate components. They have a limited amount of time, and they push producers to pack in as much as they can, as fast as they can. Stories that require time rarely get told; they are stripped down to the level of caricature, skimming the news net across the surface, turning the world into a tidy portrait of blacks and whites, ignoring the subtle shadings of gray that form the true picture. They pat us on the back when we bring back "great" pictures, but then, they are already on to the next program. Yesterday's news is gone.
So, far too many of us take these cues, become insensitive ourselves, go out armed with notepads and microphones, intrude on human suffering, demand that people share their grief with us. Our push to show reality in an "objective" way separates us from our own feelings and, too often, separates us from the feelings of others.
It creates a funny kind of schizophrenia within those of us who work in the business. Our work is most valuable when it moves others. But it's not supposed to move us. And it creates a funny kind of catch-22 with the viewing public. People don't believe us when we show no feelings toward tragedy; they don't believe us when we do.
O F COURSE, NOT EVERYONE who descended on Littleton or Oklahoma City or Stockton was insensitive. Were it not for the pressure of getting the job done, many reporters would no doubt have been overwhelmed by grief. It was obvious that most were trying, under very difficult circumstances, to do their jobs in a compassionate, professional manner.
But it's a funny thing: When you look at something through the lens of a camera, or filter it through notepads and microphones, the hardware becomes a kind of shield of denial, a way to create structure out of chaos, however illusory it may be. Add to the mix the powerful force of ambition, and it's easy to view your story as more an event than a tragedy.
And structure out of chaos--isn't that what it's supposed to be about? Frame the fire so it burns from edge to edge of the screen, show the bombs landing on rooftops and watch as the buildings explode like smashed toys, go sound up full on a wailing parent. Present the incident in precise order, tight shot, medium shot, wide shot, sound bite, more pictures. For a story like Columbine, some symbol shots, a single sneaker, or a bloody sidewalk being covered with softly falling snow.
There's a kind of heat for some reporters, when the news sirens start to wail, beckoning us like ancient Greek mariners perilously close to the rocks. And some of us have found out the hard way that we can crash on those rocks.
This new wave of "be there" journalism might be producing great Emmy entries and ratings for the networks. The networks have a legitimate place at the table--it is their job to cover national and international news. But it sometimes looks as though the networks use these catastrophic incidents as promotional vehicles for their programs and their "stars," sending them out to feel the pain of the victims before jetting them quickly back to New York, leaving their correspondents to do the mop-up work.
And our numbers keep getting bigger and bigger at every event. I'd be interested to know how many people each network sent besides their on-air people.
And then there is the massive presence of the out-of-town stations. Why should we spend thousands to send local correspondents to Denver? News managers will say it's to let viewers know they are "on top of the news." Actually, all stations have agreements with their networks that allow them to use hours of video that gets beamed across the country on several daily feeds. Those agreements even allow for local stations to take a report, wipe out the audio track of the correspondent and replace it with their own reporter's voice.
So there isn't any real burning need for folks from Hartford to send crews to Denver. But they do anyway, driven by the pressures of competition and the allure of a good story.
And then they leave all of it behind.
That's because most experienced reporters and photographers know not to linger too long in any one place. Television news is supposed to move us through these events, give us montages, clips of human suffering, pictures that say a thousand words, that assume an emotionally safe place within the confines of the medium. We wrap up our reports in neat little news "packages," supposedly bringing us to some kind of "closure"--even if it's the old tried-and-true "still more questions here than answers" sign off.
"When we come back: Littleton says goodbye."
In the end, anchors around the country looked sorrowfully at the camera as they introduced a "look back," bloody video buffed up with slow-motion effects, closed caskets, close-ups of mourning loved ones and almost always with a musical score, often Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On."
After the last funeral in Colorado, the headlines in my local paper proclaimed, "Final funeral brings outpouring of grief...the choir sings, `It'll be all right.' " We all know it will never be "all right" for those families, that closure is impossible. Their lives will be forever stained. One can only pray that in time, this terrible tragedy can somehow be incorporated into their life experiences in a sane way. The closure they talk of really happens for everybody else, because once the media leave, usually within a week or so, so does the public's attention.
We've become a nation of global rubberneckers who pull up to the TV to have momentary connections to the world, connections we can sever with the click of a remote.
S CHOOL OFFICIALS AND PARENTS across the country have been on edge since Littleton. In California, a child was arrested for having his own "Doomsday" backpack, complete with a gun and a list of 30 names. Scores of schools have been emptied by phony bomb threats. Most chillingly, children who are "geek profiled," identified as the different ones, are now thought of as dangerous.
And on May 20, a 15-year-old shot and wounded six of his fellow students at Heritage High School in Conyers, Georgia.
I have to wonder if our voluminous coverage has been dangerous in itself. When we constantly refer to something as "the worst massacre in public school history," may it not inspire a disturbed teen who sees his or her own dark glory in topping the carnage? Won't it hypersensitize officials into seeing every kid in a black T-shirt as a "ticking time bomb"?
Our new fascination with immediately "finding meaning" is degrading and desensitizing. Reporters, in the end, are not oracles. They are witnesses. And forcing journalists or their "experts" to instantly analyze a very complex situation is disrespectful to both the living and the dead.
In the world of TV news, viewers only see the product of journalism, never its process. They are not told that television is a lense that both reflects and shapes. We never see the consequences of our presence at a large-scale tragedy, and even more rarely do we think about them.
Would pool coverage, limiting the number of cameras allowed on the scene and forcing stations to share, be a positive step? Those who were forced to endure pool restrictions in the Persian Gulf War say it was government censorship, limiting the free flow of information to control public opinion at home. But perhaps it is time to re-evaluate when we really need to be there. Because we have an ethical responsibility that goes beyond providing objective reporting. In some ways, it's knowing when our numbers have become so big that our presence becomes part of the problem. It's knowing when to leave people alone. It's the responsibility to be gentle to those in pain, the responsibility to know when we have overstepped our bounds as witnesses because the news sirens are beckoning us. And it's ultimately the responsibility to hold that mirror up, not just to the world we cover, but to ourselves.