By: Nu Yang
Not too long ago we asked in our Critical Thinking column if a newspaper should hold news if it’s emotionally harmful to its staff (bit.ly/1qgOYoy). The question stemmed from the mass shooting that took place in May on the University of California, Santa Barbara campus. Both the student and the professional journalist in our column agreed that the school’s newspaper should have went ahead and immediately published the news even though the story hit too close to home.
Journalists have always been careful to put a barrier between them and a story’s subject. Perhaps it does minimize the emotional harm. Perhaps it provides them the objective point of view needed in order to just report the facts, no matter how disturbing.
When videos showing the beheadings of U.S. journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff at the hands of Islamic State militants surfaced, media organizations were faced with a dilemma. How should they cover their deaths? Some news companies urged the public not to view the videos. Others didn’t even post video stills in their reports. Instead, many of them encouraged the public to honor the men by reading their works of journalism.
When asked at a New York Times event if he had watched the videos, Times executive editor Dean Baquet said he had chosen not to view them. “Maybe I should have watched them, to be honest,” he said. “But I’m a human being, too. Those are painful things to watch.”
Every day journalists cover terrible things, and they don’t even have to be in war-torn countries. We saw it this summer in Ferguson, Mo. when journalists became the target of police arrests, simply for doing their job as they reported the story of the police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown.
When her colleague Wesley Lowery was arrested in Ferguson, Washington Post reporter Alyssa Rosenberg wrote in a column, “I think it is absolutely true that media figures react particularly strongly to the mistreatment of our own, amplifying cases that are not necessarily different from the violence or injustice suffered by other civilians. But stories like these can be sadly clarifying.”
Rosenberg brings up a good point. Stories from Ferguson and the news of Foley’s and Sotloff’s senseless deaths have certainly opened eyes. When the news directly affects journalists, that barrier between us and the story comes down fast. Why? Because journalists are human. They react. They feel. They sympathize. That’s why reporters in Ferguson stood alongside local residents, dodging tear gas canisters, in order to get their stories and images. That’s why journalists like Foley and Sotloff gave their lives to report stories from the Middle East.
It’s because these kinds of stories are personal and do hit too close to home that journalists choose to take risks to bring them to the public. We live in a dangerous world, and journalists aren’t immune to its effects.
“We do have to cover these things,” Baquet said, referring to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I can’t get away with saying, we’re not gonna cover these wars because they’re too dangerous. But it’s really hard. And that decision is not about making a buck or being competitive, it’s about the role a news organization…plays in society.”
Spoken like a true