Defending the college journalists who "killed" journalism
What happened in Isla Vista, California last Friday night has prompted important national conversations about gun-control, gender issues, and mental health. It has also kicked off a news cycle bereft of sensitivity towards the devastated community at the heart of this tragedy.
We've seen it so many times before - the press descends upon a small town torn apart by calamity – microphone in the face of every family member and friend. That holy tenet of our democracy, the public’s right to be informed, is too often trotted out as an excuse for callously burdening a community in the midst of grieving. The covers of both the New York Post and the New York Daily News featured a photo of the woman whose rejection Elliot Rodgers blamed for his rage. The Post even included the woman's name.
Perhaps then it shouldn't come as a surprise when media criticism targeted the University of California Santa Barbara's own weekly newspaper The Bottom Line, which opted not to post a definitive report Saturday morning, wary of misinformation and emotional exploitation. The paper had covered the story live on Twitter since the gunshots on Friday night, but waited until Monday to publish a recap. In an editorial published on Sunday, an editor emeritus explained the decision, citing the need "to minimize the emotional harm for our reporters, photographers and multimedia journalists." "Before we are journalists, we are Gauchos," alumni Hannah Davey wrote.
This, to some professionals, was ethically inexcusable. Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg proclaimed that the decision signified no less than, “The end of journalism.” Politico’s Byron Tau asked, “What’s next – keeping medical students out of surgery because it’s too gross?” Other critics jumped on the fact that The Bottom Line receives funding from the associated student government, as if this was a coordinated effort to hush-hush… what exactly? A national news story?
The obvious rebuttal is that we are talking about a weekly newspaper, which still planned to publish uninterrupted. But also, media critics ignored the fact that this is a group of students embedded in a nightmare, struggling to find the best way to stay informed without inflicting more emotional damage on its staff of volunteers. In a follow-up, The Bottom Line’s Editorial Board wrote, “We, as a news organization, do not want to contribute to the panic by exploiting the grief of our fellow community members.” Flooding Facebook feeds every hour with new chunks of the murderer’s childhood is good business, but it exploits grief.
Tragedy deserves coverage. But more importantly, it deserves good and respectful coverage. To that task, The Bottom Line rose to the occasion. As victims themselves, they deserve sympathy and credit. Sometimes, there are more important things than being first.