There is a difference between freedom and responsibility, and nowhere was this made clearer than in news coverage of the Boston Marathon bombers last week. (I won’t use their names — they don’t deserve even their infamy.) Terrorist acts on our soil still smack of novelty and so inevitably lead to a glut of news coverage. While I believe in the sanctity of our First Amendment rights to freedom of expression and the press, this freedom must be accompanied by a sense of social responsibility. Unfortunately, the meaning of “social responsibility” seems to be a moving target when it comes to live television coverage.
I first noticed this ambiguity during our first war in Iraq, where we might as well have had Al Michaels calling the action. Never before had warfare been presented with such immediacy as we watched live feeds of our troops storming the beaches through night vision lenses. Our sophisticated satellite arrays and vast communication network offered a clear advantage when facing Iraq’s outmanned army. However, exhaustive American network television coverage sometimes rendered that advantage useless. Who needs to send out reconnaissance when all the other side needed was a CNN newsfeed?
Reporters were embedded with our troops the second time we invaded Iraq, providing the illusion of full access without offering the Iraqi army everything, from where our troops were headed to what they’d eaten for breakfast. It was an awkward concession for the Fourth Estate; controlled information is not exactly accurate information. The military and the press jockeyed for a position that allowed for unfettered access and freedom from censure in return for delayed reportage if the coverage might put American lives in immediate danger.
Soon, the helicopter coverage of O.J. Simpson’s white Bronco crawling across an empty freeway introduced an era of media saturation that subjected every breaking news event to television’s searing gaze. It could be the month-long coverage of the papal election or a seemingly endless parade of smut from the Jodi Arias trial: If it’s happening, it probably has its own special on HLN. Live coverage is the great white whale of the media age — many outlets will risk their own reputations to chase it.
Sadly, they’re doing this for me. And probably you, too. We’ve proven we’ll watch this stuff. The Boston manhunt coverage certainly brought out the worst in me. I wanted the police to find that vile clown alive, but maybe not before he fell down a well or blew off an arm with one of his homemade explosives. From the time they engaged the police in that first firefight, I couldn’t turn off my TV. The news outlets had cameras filming their camera crews in their rush to provide new footage to a hungry public.
Most disturbing was the detail offered as cameras followed police trying to find the brothers before they did any more damage. In an age where we can watch live TV on our cell phones, those two had access to up-to-the-minute intel the Iraqis would’ve wept for. Even though the brothers had already killed a cop while fleeing, a bevy of network news anchors lined up to show them which block the police were currently searching. Cameramen hid on neighboring rooftops to give us a glimpse of the suspect’s last moments. In the process, they might well have given this loser the certainty that setting off a final explosive was all he had left.
Couldn’t the coverage have waited more than the standard 5-second delay in order to ensure the safety of the officers as they searched? All that praise for the first responders sounds rather hollow when those same news outlets consciously put those officers at risk in the name of “informing the public.” The reality is that they simply want to be the FIRST to inform the public. In doing so, this lack of social responsibility will only lead to greater dangers to the first responders who take that responsibility more seriously.
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