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Charlottesville coverage: Sometimes responsible, sometimes sensational

PCDN Global

August 22, 2017

by Steven Youngblood, Director, Center for Global Peace Journalism

News coverage about Charlottesville has been a mixed bag, sometimes responsible, and at other times needlessly sensational.

One bright spot is coverage of the murderer who drove his car through a crowd of anti-hate protesters. In the past, news reports of fatal attacks like the Charleston church murders (2015) and the Kansas City synagogue shooting by an avowed racist (2014) put a disproportionately bright spotlight on the murderer and his twisted beliefs. Oftentimes, this  disproportionate reporting overshadows coverage of the victim(s).

The press’ seeming devotion to covering terrorists and other mass murderers  has led the family members of murder victims to form an organization and website called No Notoriety (www.nonotoriety.com).  This organization challenges to media to “deprive violent individuals of the media celebrity…they so crave.” The organization recommends limiting the “name and likeness of the (murderer) in reporting after the initial identification” and refusing to publish “self-serving statements” and “manifestos made by the individual (murderer).”

The good news is that No Notoriety’s admonitions were at least partially heeded during the Charlottesville coverage. Lexis Nexis database searches of newspaper and broadcast transcripts between Aug. 13 and Aug. 21 showed the murderer named in 156 of the first 1000 newspaper hits for “Charlottesville,” and 221 of the first 1000 broadcast transcript hits. In both searches, the name of the victim, Heather Heyer, was mentioned more than the murderer-- twice as much in the newspaper search (309 vs. 156), and a bit more in the broadcast transcript search (299 to 221). Recognizing the victim’s relative importance compared to the murderer is a step in the right direction.

What these searches don’t show is how often the murderer’s image was used. If it was used even once after “initial identification, ” that’s one time too many, according to No Notoriety.  I agree.

An interesting aside: the same two searches showed a majority of the coverage centered on President Trump and his response to Charlottesville (576/1000 newspaper hits; and 835/1000 broadcast transcript hits). An in-depth content analysis is needed to determine if this flood of Trump coverage eclipsed more important reports about the victim and the hatred and societal dysfunction that were embodied by the rally in Charlottesville.

The bad news on the Charlottesville coverage, from a peace journalism perspective, was the widespread usage of the nauseating footage and/or still photos of the murderer’s car plowing into the protesters. I saw the footage myself at least 10 times on CNN, and still images from the car attack were used on many newspaper front pages.

The most sensational, egregious front page, to no one’s surprise, was the New York Daily News, with a zoomed-in photo showing victims flying through the air, their faces, and looks of horror, clearly visible.

As peace journalists, we should be thoughtful about the images we use, always asking these questions:

  1. Are these images merely sensational, or are they necessary for a complete understanding of the story?
  2. Will these images needlessly inflame passions against the suspect, scuttling his right to a fair trial?
  3. What about the families of the victims? If this was your loved one, would you want the photo or video published?
  4. Do the pictures in any way glorify the perpetrator, his crime, or his cause? Do the images encourage copycats?

Whether  it’s images or words, responsible journalists should always consider the consequences of their reporting, and their minimum responsibility to not make a bad situation worse.

--Follow me on Twitter @PeaceJourn


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