The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Columns

May 31, 2014

Too much graphic detail is bad journalism ethics

The Back Porch

Information is critical to a democracy, but not every piece of information is critical for a democratic society to know.

I frequently argue for access to information. In fact, I’m about as close to an absolutist regarding the First Amendment as former Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black.

But there are some things from my time as a reporter for this newspaper that I have never told another human being even in the 12 years since I left the paper. There are three reasons.

First, I made a promise to keep information confidential. If people trust you with their stories and you promise that you will not reveal a source or the information, you darn sure better keep that promise.

Second, the information was gossip or didn’t lead to anything substantial. Contrary to what I was often accused of, I didn’t put everything I knew into every story. Had I done so, warfare would have broken out across many of the counties in southern West Virginia.

Third, the information was so graphic that it served no purpose to anyone for it to be known. A certain level of detail adds credibility and realism to reporting, but some details are better left unreported.

Along the way, sometimes it’s difficult to hold onto humanity when confronted every day with the worst people can do to one another. It becomes one more story and a level of sensitivity gets obliterated by repetition.

The way I teach media law and media ethics is with these two statements: Law asks the question, Can we? Ethics asks the question, Should we?

The coverage of last week’s stabbings, shootings and running down of 20 victims in Isla Vista, Calif., is one example why that method is effective. I had the misfortune of tuning in last Saturday morning to CNN to watch a field reporter interview the young man who saw the victims in the yard at the sorority house.

He described, in lurid and anguishing detail, the wounds of one of the women, her last words and her last phone conversation with her mother.

I was disgusted. Yes, that made the attacks more real, but my heart went out to the woman’s mother who had no say over whether that conversation was made public. It was good TV, but it was bad ethics. The field reporter looked patronizing and callous while her empathy seemed false. Her actions diminished and trivialized what had happened. Shame on the producer who decided to air the interview.

Young people today are so conditioned to share everything with the media that they wouldn’t consider declining an interview request. It is first nature for them. Somewhere in the equation it’s up to the media to show restraint and consider the effect on family and friends of repeated airings of the interview. I know they don’t have to watch them, but some video clips are hard to escape because they show up everywhere.

Just because CNN had the information and could legally use it didn’t mean the network had to.

There are some things people don’t need to know. In journalism, knowing the difference makes all the difference.

— Young is a freelance columnist for The Register-Herald. E-mail: ynerissa@frontier.com.

© 2014 by Nerissa Young

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