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Tragic stories challenge press credibility

By Gene Policinski
First Amendment Center executive director
10.10.06

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There is no absolute guidebook or set of rules for a free press — and the First Amendment provides that government cannot write one and make it stick.

But nothing prevents journalists from writing their own sets of rules, and there’s more than a little evidence that the public wants just that kind of responsible, thoughtful response from the nation’s news media, particularly when tragedies occur and the possibility of media frenzy is at its highest.

In the annual State of the First Amendment survey conducted by the First Amendment Center, support for a free press declines every time there is a “Monica” overload or a major misstep, as in coverage of the 2000 election.

At the same time, when the news media bring needed information in detail to Americans — and perhaps also serve as watchdogs on the decisions, efficiency and performance of public officials — appreciation for a free press rebounds. One need look no further than the often-expressed praise for local and regional coverage after Hurricane Katrina.

In short, public trust is the news media’s to gain or lose.

The nation’s press likely is faced with just such a situation again: three school shootings in six days, the latest at an Amish school in Pennsylvania, and the White House conference on school violence scheduled for today.

All the elements for potential media excess are there — multiple and tragic deaths, with the “added angle” of violence against girls; multiple opportunities for interviews with survivors, would-be experts and others who may or may not have something to contribute; small towns rocked by horrible crimes.

There is fodder for sensational reports, in any sense of the phrase, and fuel for the talking-head machine as it ramps up from regular chatter to full-speed opinion.

A few cautionary words as reporters and correspondents fan out to cover both the breaking news and the necessary follow-up stories; anchors prepare for talk-fests on the crimes; and the Bush administration holds its conference — all based on the Freedom Forum project eight years ago in the wake of a school shooting in Jonesboro, Ark.

In that report, to which I was a contributor, recommendations were made on the basis of what went right as well as wrong, in news reports that ranged from hometown stories to international coverage. Three of the top recommendations for the press:

  1. Be wary of unsubstantiated information. As we learned all too well from incidents at the time, and relearned as recently as the rise-and-fall coverage of the man who claimed to have killed JonBenet Ramsey, even an “eyewitness” or self-proclaimed defendant may be mistaken or have unknown motives. The public we interviewed in Jonesboro, and those that weigh in each year in the State of the First Amendment survey, expect journalists to show some restraint, or at least identify as such any rumors or “news” that isn’t backed up by substantial evidence. In the Jonesboro report, that expectation held true for news stories and commentator discussions.

  2. Avoid demonizing or glorifying victims or suspects. A particularly difficult suggestion given the horror the latter may create and the innocence of the victims. Another guideline not in the publication but that came out of interviews with friends and family members in Jonesboro: Report on those who died as “real people.” As one relative told me of her child, “I don’t want her to be remembered just as a victim.”

  3. Correct errors promptly and in full detail. One of the surprises for my colleagues and me in dozens of interviews in Jonesboro was the appreciation the public had when the news media made a good-faith effort to report breaking news … and the absolute abhorrence of errors and unprofessional conduct. Much was made then, and has been made since, about the decline in public trust and credibility of the news media. Major stories that touch hearts and minds also heighten public scrutiny and affect judgment long after the story itself has faded.

Since Jonesboro, from Columbine through the Amish schoolroom in Pennsylvania, more senseless killings of schoolchildren and educators have occurred. But lessons learned in Jonesboro still have value — and may help print and broadcast journalists approach these stories in the days ahead.

The Jonesboro report is available online.

Other First Amendment Center news of note includes two awards:

  • On Sept. 23, entertainer Charlie Daniels received the 2006 “Spirit of Americana” Award, presented by the Americana Music Association and the First Amendment Center.

    Daniels was honored for his lifelong – and sometimes controversial — commitment to free speech, in music and in venues ranging from the Internet to TV programs to live performances, as well as his involvement in efforts to combat bullying in schools and to provide used musical instruments to U.S. forces overseas.

    Past award recipients are Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Steve Earle and Judy Collins. Daniels received the award as part of the Americana Awards program at the historic Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. The award recognizes artists who have used their careers to speak out on matters of importance to the nation and their fellow citizens, often at the risk of their commercial success.

    Peter Cooper of The Tennesseean reported Daniels said he was honored “to be recognized for freedom of speech,” adding: I exercise mine every day. Patriotism is not blind allegiance to any ideology or political party. Nobody is right all the time. Reasonable people will sit down and work together.”

  • On Sept. 16, First Amendment Center Founder John Seigenthaler received the Edith Wortman First Amendment Matrix Foundation Award from the Association of Women in Communication. He is the first male to receive the award, which honored him for his work in defense of First Amendment freedoms.

    Mary Kay Switzer, an associate professor of communication at California State Polytechnic University Pomona, Calif., presented the award, named for her mother, in recognition of what she called Seigenthaler’s lifelong “dedication and his outstanding support for First Amendment rights for both men and women.”

  • Comment? E-mail me
    Update
    Now-freed Josh Wolf went to jail ... why?
    By Gene Policinski Significance of the video he refused to give up to California grand jury investigating riot: zero to none. 04.04.07

    Previous
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    By Gene Policinski Knight Foundation study finds more learning about our first freedoms, mixed bag as to respect for them. 09.22.06

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    First Amendment Watch blog with Gene Policinski


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