The horrific event at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, in which school children and adults were murdered and wounded, brought out the full force — the strengths and weaknesses — of TV news reporting.
The problem is the nature of TV news at this moment. There is a compulsion to stay on the story for hours on end, with each network looking at the other, not wanting to become the first to cut away. The result is an endless repetition of the few known facts, surrounded by far too much improvised speculation, and the kind of sentimentality that does not do justice to the victims. There is a parade of experts on child and psychopathic psychology, weapons, and police investigative policy that adds little enlightenment (none of the experts know the people they’re opining about). And, most disgracefully, especially in the early hours of the TV coverage, there were interviews with young children who attend the school. People who are not public figures, or who are too young to know they have the option to remain quiet, should not be made to feel compelled to comment to the media.
Watching TV, we got hours of misinformation about the killer, Adam Lanza, and the entire incident. Early reports had Adam’s brother Ryan as the shooter; there was a “source confirms gunman’s father dead” chyron running beneath at least one news channel’s screen, which proved not true; some TV outlets said the killer’s mother was a teacher at the school, while others said she was not, but “may have been an aide.”
TV news would have done much better to pause, to resume its regular programming after the initial reports, to break in when there was something important, such as the President’s statement and updates from Connecticut law enforcement, and then do what news organizations are supposed to do — gather facts; report out the story; and assemble well-written, clear-eyed reportage. Then come back on the air with fact-filled coverage.
This is what good newspapers do, but of course, the newspaper industry, that essential organ of American information, is being gutted and disappearing, and so most citizens are left to gaze helplessly at the half-baked presentations of TV news, hoping to glean some facts that can be sussed out from the non-stop repetitions (“Let’s show the footage of President Obama wiping away a tear again!”), the maunderings, and as a result of this, the inevitable trivializing of a tragedy.
By the time the network news arrived at their evening newscasts, the event had been branded — NBC called its coverage “Tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary”; ABC went with “Tragedy at the Elementary School” — and more microphones were being stuck in little children’s faces. “Were kids crying and screaming?” prompted ABC’s Dan Harris to one girl. ABC’s coverage was probably the most mawkish; I learned more facts from the first five minutes of the CBS Evening News (the number and kind of guns used by the killer, for example, and that they were “bought legally and registered to his mother”) than I did during the whole expanded hour of ABC’s World News.
The recurring take on President Obama’s statement was that he “acted not as a President but as a parent,” as one correspondent put it — at precisely a moment when you want to believe that the President is acting like a President, leading the country, which to all appearances he was. It’s amazing, the casual gall of TV news talking heads ascribing thoughts to a President, and at the other extreme, to a killer: On Fox News, the blowhard Dr. Keith Ablow said that “reality TV is no friend of preventing such things; Facebook is no friend of preventing such things.” Did that add anything to any viewer’s knowledge?
This kind of thing will continue for a while. And there’s already extensive parsing of the President’s comment that there must be “meaningful action … regardless of politics” to halt such bloody events. Immediately, there were TV and internet cries not to “politicize” this, or to please, please politicize this now. Only NBC Nightly News had the presence of mind, or guts, to devote a brief segment to the issue of gun control, pointing out that Captain Mark Kelly, husband of Gabby Giffords, “made a call for gun control on Facebook.”
On CBS, Dr. Jon LaPook suggested that children “should not watch TV; [they] don’t need to see those images over and over.” Neither should the rest of us watch for hours and hours on end. We need solid information about what has happened, and cogent argument about what should happen in the future.