||Rocky Mountain Media Watch Texts #8|
|Columbine Anniversary Media Coverage
|Studies by Rocky Mountain Media Watch across the U.S. over the last five years document that, on average, almost half the news each night concerns violent topics like crime, war, disaster and terrorism. The seventy-five percent of Americans who tune in to local news regularly have been conditioned to this dose of mayhem.
When a diabolical event like the Columbine High School massacre happens, dose becomes overdose. It seems the philosophy on TV is that anything worth doing is worth overdoing. Columbine media coverage provided relentless examination of the killers' plan to conduct assault operations on their school, the plight of victims, the soul-searching of the community, the availability of guns, the role of media, the explosion of copycat events across the country, the American culture of violence plus minute details of tangential stories with any conceivable relation to the tragedy.
The media's fascination with this story has continued for months. Listed below are the number of stories dealing with Columbine that appeared on Denver local television news in the six months after the original Columbine incident:
Now, with the one year anniversary of the tragedy approaching, citizens should prepare to protect themselves from the side-effects of another media feeding frenzy relating to the re-examination of the Columbine massacre, and journalists should refrain from excessive coverage of the event.
In anticipation, Rocky Mountain Media Watch issued an "overdose alert" today as the media prepared to capitalize on the potential mass audience for a rehash of this fearful and tragic story.
"Three-thousand copycat events exploded across the country following the media's saturation coverage of the original Columbine murders," warned Paul Klite, RMMW Director. "The media must be sensitive to the potential harm their excessive attention can generate."
"Mimicked violence is vivid evidence of the media's power to spread ideas," said Klite, who noted that contagious acts have also been spawned in media coverage of suicides, product tampering, mass murder, hijackings and terrorism. A sketchy empiric profile of potentially contagious news includes diabolical or bizarre criminal acts that attract excessive media attention and generate notoriety for perpetrators as well as premeditated violent events with random consequences and multiple victims. Motives may include revenge or some political statement. Nevertheless, it remains difficult to accurately predict, measure and anticipate all the triggers for criminal contagion.
TV doesn't "cause" copycat crimes, but it does plant the ideas in vulnerable and troubled minds. Broadcasting, after all, means to spread seeds. As an analogy, coughing doesn't cause TB; the germ does. The cough spreads it. Sex doesn't cause AIDS; the virus does. Sex spreads it.
Is mimicked media violence preventable? What elements of TV's coverage of dramatic events catalyze violent behavior? Which broadcast techniques heighten the copycat potential of news telling?
The Canadian Association of Broadcasters has published guidelines for handling potentially troubling violence. First of all, stations will not air programming that contains gratuitous violence or which sanctions, promotes or glamorizes violence. Programs must deal carefully with themes that may threaten children's safety, security or invite imitation. In general, caution must be exercised in selecting and repeating violent video in the news. While the news should not be sanitized, the CAB warns that care should be taken not to incite additional violence.
The BBC's Producer Guidelines state, "Reported suicides may encourage others. We should not try to add to this risk." Recommendations include not broadcasting the details of the suicide method, being discreet and sensitive about broadcast images and demonstrating extreme care in reporting unusual suicide techniques.
Think of some famous news images, like the Rodney King beating, JonBenet dancing or Bill and Monica hugging. We have all seen these hundreds of times. At Columbine, over and over, we saw the same photos of the killers, a bloody student exiting from a window, groups of children running from the school and the shocked victims. News departments can use repetition to sell a story just like advertisers use it to sell a product. Repetition gives notoriety to perpetrators and motivates others to imitate violent acts. Stations may rationalize their use of repetition on the grounds that many viewers tune in for only a few minutes, but that avoids the issue of negative side-effects.
RMMW recommends citizens take the following actions to protect themselves and their families from media manipulation surrounding this event:
:: Limit your media dose of this story. Turn the TV and radio off as appropriate.
Bizarre crimes, celebrity, money, murder, sex, mystery and videotape surrounding a news story make for good theater and increased potential for media frenzies. These tabloid attributes are entirely different from the elements of good journalism - fairness, balance, accuracy and substance. Media frenzies, like those that surrounded the O.J., JonBenet, Monica and Columbine stories, crowd other stories out of the news, resulting in an unbalanced diet of information for citizens.
Broadcast images can have great power. Visual details may include close ups and graphic violence, even blood. Intense emotions, like fear and panic, can be contagious and call for journalistic restraint.
On the sound track, the tone can be dramatic and sensational or measured and calm. Ambient sounds, music and graphics heighten the tension. Word choices which are pejorative or stereotypical are provocative.
Stories can be given top billing or not and take ten seconds or two minutes to tell. Is the violence gratuitous or glamorized, promoted or hyped? In real life, there are consequences to violence. Are they shown?
TV news departments have many choices here. Stations can exercise extreme care, sensitivity and restraint in dispensing violent content or they can be unmindful, even exploitive. Violence innately gets people's attention and produces a strong emotional reaction in viewers that advertisers covet. Marketeers call it arousal. Paraphrasing Marshall McLuhan, arousal helps move merchandise. Violence, talk of violence and threat of violence are the most effective tools for manipulating people. Propagandists from Machiavelli to Mao have known this.
TV stations have a responsibility to use the public airwaves in the public interest and not just for profit. Just as it is irresponsible to cry fire in a crowded theater, it is wrong to manipulate audiences with violence.
Shortly after the Columbine tragedy, when it was obvious that local TV stations had made serious mistakes in their wall to wall coverage, the Radio and Television News Directors Association came out with guidelines for live reporting of hostage events. These included keeping news helicopters out of the area; fighting the urge to become a player in any hostage standoff; avoiding broadcasting any information that could jeopardize victims or police actions; exercising care in interviewing family members and going live only if there are strong journalistic reasons to do so.
A similar set of guidelines is needed by stations to report on tragic events that have proven potential for contagion.
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