Obsessive News Coverage: Enough!

Nelson Mandela, apartheid, South AfricaWe are in one of those cycles of obsessive news coverage when every TV and radio news story is about one thing and one thing only. In this case, it’s the death of Nelson Mandela. Previous such obsessions have ranged from the Newtown School Shootings to the death of Michael Jackson.

This type of coverage can vary, of course. Fox News fixates on things like the attack on the American embassy in Benghazi while other networks give it less time and NPR can obsess about the AIDS crisis while other stations barely mention it. Still, certain major world events seem to paralyze the major news programs so that they are incapable of reporting on anything else.

It’s More Than Just Twerking

Most of us may think that certain stories get more publicity than they deserve. Celebrities involved with twerking, being victimized by a catfish scam, and NFL bullying come immediately to mind. Also, anything having to do with any member of the Kardashian family. Unless it’s limited to ESPN or Entertainment Tonight, these stories are not, IMHO, worth the attention lavished on them. But they do not constitute obsessive news coverage, either. That’s a different situation, usually generated by the deaths of famous people, mass shootings, royal weddings, royal funerals, atrocities of some kind or celebrity trials. When two or more of these things are combined, as with Michael Jackson’s death, the coverage goes truly over the top.

This is not to detract in any way from the importance of Nelson Mandela’s achievements, his contributions to his country and the world, or the lessons we can draw from his life. All of those facets merit in-depth stories, as do presidential interviews and I have listened to many of them. Still, other things happening in the world are also worthy of mention. I want to hear these stories, too.

So why is it that every TV news program that I could access last Thursday while on the treadmill at the gym was on different aspects of Mr. Mandela’s death? Why is it that every news program I watched while stretching out Friday morning was about Mr. Mandela? Why is it that All Things Considered could talk only about Mr. Mandela while I was making breakfast? And this morning, CBS had an interview with Hugh Masakela about the music that powered the rebellion. What next—recipes for his favorite dinner?

The Problems with Obsessive Coverage

This obsessive news coverage may seem responsible and respectful but it has a few problems.

The news programs, stations, and reports forget that their audiences are not as interested in hearing every tiny detail or seeing every possible aspect of the Big News Story as they are. They seem blind and deaf to the fact that we ordinary folks want to hear about other things that are happening in Washington, throughout the country and—believe it or not—around the world. When we fall into one of these obsessive news cycles, I simply tune out—and I don’t think I’m the only one who does. At the gym I take out my earbuds and read my eBook. In the car I switch from NPR and listen to my audiobook. At home I turn off the TV.

Enough is just enough.

The second problem is that obsessive attention, digging into every tiny detail, can be dangerous. This is particularly true in the coverage of mass shootings and bombings. In the U.S. we have had more of these than any sane nation should tolerate so the pattern of news coverage has become familiar. Stations vie to cover the event, interview the grieving families, profile the killer(s) and—always—ask why he or they did it. As though a rational explanation for the slaughter of schoolchildren, movie viewers, or shoppers is even possible.

We are learning—although this should not be a surprise to any thinking person—that infamy is a big motive behind mass shootings. The promise of their pictures on the news drives their awful acts, even if they won’t be around to savor the notoriety. It’s not logical but these killers are not being driven by logic.

The Importance of Messaging

Ari N. Schulman’s excellent article in November’s Wall Street Journal drives this point home. In “What Mass Killers Want—And How to Stop Them,” Mr. Schulman says, “Fantasy, public expression and messaging are central to what motivates and defines massacre killings.” He adds that we should do everything we can to deprive them of the publicity they crave and which drives other unbalanced young men to follow their example. This advice is particularly relevant because we just passed the first anniversary of the school shootings in Newtown CT.

Mr. Schulman recommends treating mass killings, which often occur in clusters, as a form of contagion, one that can be contained and minimized by taking some common-sense actions. The list includes a number of actions that can be controlled by the news media and the police. At the top of the list is depriving the killer of his notoriety and his audience.

Newtown school shootings, Newtown CT, media coverage

News Reporters in Newtown

The first three are:

  1. Never publish a killer’s propaganda
  2. Hide his name and his face
  3. Don’t report his biography or speculate as to his motive

Next comes withholding the gory details. Yes, this information drives people to watch the news as many are fascinated by this information and want to know more. It’s like the people who rush to the scene of a horrific automobile accident. What do they expect to see? Do they really want years of nightmares about a mangled body? Human nature being what it is, however, Mr. Schulman recommends that the media:

  • Minimize specifics and gory details
  • Show no photos or videos of the events
  • Minimize images of grieving families
  • Tell a different story 

The last—and most important—of his recommendations is: Decrease the saturation

Roling Stone, Dzhokar Tsarnaev , Jim Morrison, Boston Marathon, Marathon bomberJust Turn It Off

What can we who are not in law enforcement or the media do to change things? It’s simple: stop watching. Turn off the TV and the radio. Don’t buy any newspapers or magazines that glamorize shooters.

Here in Massachusetts, many stores refused to sell the issue of Rolling Stone that not only put Marathon Bomber Dzhokar Tsarnaev on the cover but made him look like a hot young Jim Morrison. Yet that issue generated huge newsstand sales. The lesson to be drawn from this financial success is simple: next time—and there will be a next time—Rolling Stone and other magazines will rush to put another shooter or bomber on the cover.

I disagree with Mr. Schulman’s conclusion that mental illness plays little or no part in the factors that drive mass shootings. He takes this information from a book published in 1997, well before the current crop of disturbed young men carried out their plans to destroy others and then themselves. I do think his advice on how to reduce their number and impact is important, however.

Obsessive news coverage of these events is driven, in part, by the fear of losing audience to a competing news channel or publication that is offering more “in-depth” information. Maybe the networks and cable news stations should form an agreement not to go beyond reporting the facts and to keep pictures of the perpetrators off the screen and the front page.

In the meantime, when you encounter obsessive news coverage, just turn it off. What have you got to lose?