Tragic stories challenge press credibility

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

There is no absolute guidebook or set of rules for a free press — and the
First Amendment provides that government cannot write one and make it stick.

But nothing prevents journalists from writing their own sets of rules, and
there’s more than a little evidence that the public wants just that kind of
responsible, thoughtful response from the nation’s news media, particularly when
tragedies occur and the possibility of media frenzy is at its highest.

In the annual State of the First Amendment survey conducted by the First
Amendment Center, support for a free press declines every time there is a
“Monica” overload or a major misstep, as in coverage of the 2000 election.

At the same time, when the news media bring needed information in detail to
Americans — and perhaps also serve as watchdogs on the decisions, efficiency and
performance of public officials — appreciation for a free press rebounds. One
need look no further than the often-expressed praise for local and regional
coverage after Hurricane Katrina.

In short, public trust is the news media’s to gain or lose.

The nation’s press likely is faced with just such a situation again: three
school shootings in six days, the latest at an Amish school in Pennsylvania, and
the White House conference on school violence scheduled for today.

All the elements for potential media excess are there — multiple and tragic deaths,
with the “added angle” of violence against girls; multiple opportunities for
interviews with survivors, would-be experts and others who may or may not have
something to contribute; small towns rocked by horrible crimes.

There is fodder for sensational reports, in any sense of the phrase, and fuel
for the talking-head machine as it ramps up from regular chatter to full-speed

A few cautionary words as reporters and correspondents fan out to cover both
the breaking news and the necessary follow-up stories; anchors prepare for
talk-fests on the crimes; and the Bush administration holds its conference —
all based on the Freedom Forum project eight years ago in the wake of a school
shooting in Jonesboro, Ark.

In that report, to which I was a contributor, recommendations were made on
the basis of what went right as well as wrong, in news reports that ranged from
hometown stories to international coverage. Three of the top recommendations for
the press:

  1. Be wary of unsubstantiated information. As we learned all too well
    from incidents at the time, and relearned as recently as the rise-and-fall
    coverage of the man who claimed to have killed JonBenet Ramsey, even an
    “eyewitness” or self-proclaimed defendant may be mistaken or have unknown
    motives. The public we interviewed in Jonesboro, and those that weigh in each
    year in the State of the First Amendment survey, expect journalists to show some
    restraint, or at least identify as such any rumors or “news” that isn’t backed
    up by substantial evidence. In the Jonesboro report, that expectation held true
    for news stories and commentator discussions. 


  2. Avoid demonizing or glorifying victims or suspects. A particularly
    difficult suggestion given the horror the latter may create and the innocence of
    the victims. Another guideline not in the publication but that came out of
    interviews with friends and family members in Jonesboro: Report on those who
    died as “real people.” As one relative told me of her child, “I don’t want her
    to be remembered just as a victim.” 


  3. Correct errors promptly and in full detail. One of the surprises for
    my colleagues and me in dozens of interviews in Jonesboro was the appreciation
    the public had when the news media made a good-faith effort to report breaking
    news … and the absolute abhorrence of errors and unprofessional conduct. Much
    was made then, and has been made since, about the decline in public trust and
    credibility of the news media. Major stories that touch hearts and minds also
    heighten public scrutiny and affect judgment long after the story itself has



Since Jonesboro, from Columbine through the Amish schoolroom in Pennsylvania,
more senseless killings of schoolchildren and educators have occurred. But
lessons learned in Jonesboro still have value — and may help print and broadcast
journalists approach these stories in the days ahead.

Other First Amendment Center news of note includes two awards:



  • On Sept. 23, entertainer Charlie Daniels received the 2006 “Spirit of
    Americana” Award, presented by the Americana Music Association and the First
    Amendment Center. 


    Daniels was honored for his lifelong – and sometimes controversial —
    commitment to free speech, in music and in venues ranging from the Internet to
    TV programs to live performances, as well as his involvement in efforts to
    combat bullying in schools and to provide used musical instruments to U.S.
    forces overseas.
    Past award recipients are Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Steve Earle and
    Judy Collins. Daniels received the award as part of the Americana Awards program
    at the historic Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. The award recognizes artists who
    have used their careers to speak out on matters of importance to the nation and
    their fellow citizens, often at the risk of their commercial success.
    Peter Cooper of The Tennesseean reported Daniels said he was honored
    “to be recognized for freedom of speech,” adding: I exercise mine every day.
    Patriotism is not blind allegiance to any ideology or political party. Nobody is
    right all the time. Reasonable people will sit down and work together.”



  • On Sept. 16, First Amendment Center Founder John Seigenthaler
    received the Edith Wortman First Amendment Matrix Foundation Award from the
    Association of Women in Communication. He is the first male to receive the
    award, which honored him for his work in defense of First Amendment freedoms. 


    Mary Kay Switzer, an associate professor of communication at California State
    Polytechnic University Pomona, Calif., presented the award, named for her
    mother, in recognition of what she called Seigenthaler’s lifelong “dedication
    and his outstanding support for First Amendment rights for both men and

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