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Ethics and the Breaking Story

The Intersection of News Assignments and Tragedy


When tragic events occur, such as the mass murder in Isla Vista last month, the media races to cover the story. Within minutes of the shootings, Santa Barbara news crews were on the scene, followed by regional and national media.

A tsunami of reporters and photographers and cameramen armed with microphones, cameras, broadcast news vans, and even some with just pen and paper came to report the story of a madman who killed six and wounded many others (as to why he did it I’ll leave to others to analyze).

Ben Bycel

As the media circus continued for days, some of the residents expressed their feelings about it. As reported in The Santa Barbara Independent, they held up signs that read “ Stop Filming Our Tears” and “Our Tragedy Is Not Your Commodity.” They wanted to grieve and be together without the glaring TV lights. While few in number, they represented, one can assume, a significant portion of the community.

This small act of protest brought to mind the ethical challenges reporters face in covering tragic spectacles. Every major news gathering organization, from the Associated Press to National Public Radio, has its own detailed set of ethics guidelines and rules detailing how to investigate and report violent crimes. Are they followed? Not always.

One online journalism webpage urges reporters to maintain ethical standards when covering violent crimes:

“What is just a standard news assignment for you is a life-changing tragedy for the victims of crime. To often, thoughtless reporters jam microphones or tape recorders into the faces of people who just lost a loved one.”

Regardless of this admonition, many reporters, given the 24/7 news cycle and the pressure to beat their competitors (as if the general public cares who got the story first), are often urged to “do what it takes” to get the story. Editors’ demands for provocative news footage and dramatic statements from witnesses or crime victims have been known to cross ethical and, in some cases, legal lines.

For example, a reporter may conceal a tape recorder to interview grieving family members or friends without their knowledge. Photographers may use ruses to invade the privacy of the victim’s family to take photos.

A reporter may cross police lines in order to secure a photograph of a crime scene, including bodies, which could interfere with police investigations. Reporters may attempt to interview the suspected perpetrator of the crimes and legally compromise crucial evidence or testimony.

While it may not be an obvious ethical issue, I think the common practice among most news outlets (60 Minutes and a few others excluded) of doing little or no follow-up on stories they sensationalized is poor journalism.

How many news outlets that flocked to Isla Vista will do follow-up stories on both the killer and his victims? What about investigative pieces? Will any newsperson press Sheriff Brown to release any notes, tapes, or other information his office has about the Sheriff’s deputies’ earlier visit to Elliot Rodger’s apartment? How long did it last? Was there a trained psychiatric worker with the officers? Why didn’t the officers ask to go inside the apartment? Are there notes of what the officers told Rodger’s parents? And did they run a check on him for firearms?

What about Rodger’s earlier life? Would interviews with his mother and father be helpful in understanding why their son acted so violently? For example, the New Yorker just did a lengthy story on Adam Lansa’s, the Newtown killer’s father, which gave some insight into his son’s actions.

It’s too early to tell whether any news organization will make an effort to explore, among other things, why Elliot Rodger committed the murders. If the effort is not made, it will be a missed opportunity for us to learn important facts about how such tragic events occur.

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