Wednesday, April 18, 2007

A ban won't do the trick

I've been reading Geoff Meeker's commentary following the shootings at Virginia Tech, and in particular the way media should or shouldn't cover such an event. I won't get into the gun debate because that's a massive argument all on its own. I don't like guns. I never have and have only handled them a few times in my life. My conclusion? That I should never handle guns. Would that more people felt the same way.

Anyway, there are two points that Geoff is arguing. The first is that we should pay more attention to the victims than the murderer. For the record, I agree. There are, sadly, dozens of stories to be told of the people who died on Monday. Each of them has a story to be told. I hope each of their stories are told and given the depth and compassion they deserve.

But never doubt for a second those are unbelievably hard stories to tell. Others may debate the point with me, but I can think of few jobs harder as a journalist than the long walk up the steps to a family's house, knocking on their door and asking if you could please have a few minutes of their time so that they can talk about what happened.

It is a brutal, brutal job. Journalists beg not to do it. I loathed it on the few occasions I had to do it. At best you feel like a ghoul. Some families welcome the chance to tell what their loved one was like. It's cathartic. Helping to talk about it gives some shape to the grief. Others will revile you, call you a monster and slam the door in your face.

I've always been envious of the journalists who are good at that part of the job. And there are ones who are truly gifted at being able to get family and friends to open up when they are grieving and don't want to talk to anyone.

But there is a reason when people wonder why there aren't more stories about the victims of these types of crimes. It often takes years, if ever, before family and friends can talk about what happened to them.

Although I find it interesting that with the advent of social networking sites like Facebook that you can now learn more about those who were hurt and died. Friends and family have always gathered to tell stories about their loved one after they've died. But before they might do it behind closed doors; now they can do it online.

It's a good thing. You get to hear stories and voices that might not have otherwise been noticed. I just hope it doesn't get abused.

The second argument is that we shouldn't show pictures of the murder, give his (or her) name or discuss what motivated them to commit such a crime (or at the very least minimize what is said about the murderer). That by doing so, it might "give oxygen" to other people who are contemplating committing such a crime.

It's an interesting argument, however it's also an utterly moot point. With the way today's media is structured, with so much information available online, it is absolutely impossible to bring about such a ban or even limit the information. Individual media outlets can make that choice. That's their call. But people will find out the information.

Trying to ban information like this effectively came to an end during the Bernardo trial. I'm sure others will site different cases, but it's the first time I remember clearly that if I wanted to know what was being said during the trial that the media weren't allowed to report, well, there were newsgroups I could go to that would give me all the horrific details I could stomach.

And there is nothing wrong with wanting to know who the person it is, for the record. It's a human reaction to want to have a name and a face to such monsters, to try and grasp at some sense for why they would do such a thing. I think not knowing the name, not knowing what they look like or their reasons is a far scarier proposition. Even during his talk on the Globe and Mail's website yesterday, Dr. Eliot Leyton admitted there's still a lot we don't understand about drives people to commit such acts. Concerns that such a person becoming "famous" might inspire others to commit such acts strikes me as a touch simplistic. Much like the arguments that violent videogames, movies and comic books are the reason certain violent acts. I think the more we know, the more we can eventually hope to understand, and prevent, such things from happening.

Are there better ways to cover these events when they happen? Always. And those discussions are important and should happen. But suggesting the murder's name and photos should be banned isn't the way to go. Suppressing information for the good of the general public is never going to be one of those things I'm going to be 100 per comfortable with unless it's in extraordinary circumstance.

And as terrible as it is to say, what happened at Virginia Tech simply isn't a good enough reason.


Geoff Meeker said...

Hi Craig... If the deaths of 32 young people is not reason enough, then what is? How about the revelation that the killer sent a videotaped 1,800 word manifesto, with photos of him brandishing guns, to NBC News between the first and second shootings. The killer knew that this would generate major headlines, making him "famous" around the world. I know we can't control every source of information these days, but I am all for turning down the volume on this kind of crap. I don't want to hear it, and it is a freedom I am happy to surrender if it saves lives.

Kirsten said...

"Concerns that such a person becoming "famous" might inspire others to commit such acts strikes me as a touch simplistic."

I was struggling with this idea yesterday. My first impulse was that the media shouldn't publicize the name - not outright ban it, but also not treat the killer with the sort of hushed awe and amazement that they do. Certainly I feel they shouldn't air any of his video, because that's just what he wanted - a free platform for his views, to be glorified and discussed. And part of the reason he made a video was because he saw how people treat the others who've gone on rampages, Columbine especially: everyone wants to understand the killers, their horrible acts are discussed for years, and they become household names.

I don't want to know or remember the name of the bastard who did this. He doesn't deserve it.

I have no easy answer. I don't think the information should be banned, but maybe there should be a different approach in how the killer is discussed. Hell, if it didn't violate journalistic integrity, his name should be mocked and all his most embarrassing flaws exposed for the world to see. Maybe that would discourage the psycho killer who does it for the glory and for the chance to make their name known and their views heard - if they knew that after their death, their most humiliating personal secrets would be shared and their face ridiculed on national television.

Anyone got any better ideas?

towniebastard said...

Geoff, I appreciate that this might sound terrible, but I don't know where to draw the line, but I don't think this incident is enough. To not report his name, pictures and motives is irresponsible. It's harsh, brutal and unpleasent, but there you go.

A degree of common sense is needed in the reporting and there can be debate to what extent and what details can be provided. Reporting some of what he said in the video and some select clips is fine. The whole video is unnecessary to get the point across.

By the way, there is another important factor to consider here. People can always choose to not watch or read this. I haven't seen the video. That's a choice I've made as I have no interest in seeing it. At some point people have to take responsibility for what they report, true. But people have also got to take responsibility for they choose to read and watch.

No one is forcing people to look at this. They can always look away.