I spent one Christmas knocking on the doors of the parents of murdered children. The families were gathered around the trees in their living rooms, sobbing loudly or sitting quietly in shock. I asked grieving mothers to describe their dead boys. What were they like? What will you miss most about them? What presents did you get them that they’ll never open? I hated it. I did it because people wanted to read it, and because it was important that they did.
We have already reached the smarm phase of today’s mass shooting on an Oregon college campus. Your Twitter timeline is likely filled with comments and variations on this:
These people in the replies all have two things in common: they are reporters, and they are reporting.
This is the gruesome business of newsgathering laid bare. It is invaluable and messy and it not only doesn’t diverge from the most basic principles of journalism, it exemplifies them. This is a massive breaking story; the nation is deliriously thirsty for facts and details; and the reporters and producers clogging up a witnesses’s timeline are the ones who are going to bring you that news.
Over the coming hours and days, millions of people are going to watch millions of hours and read millions of words on the Umpqua Community College shooting. They will learn what it looked like, from witnesses who escaped with their lives; they will learn about the victims—their lives, their hobbies, their dreams—from their friends and families; they will learn about the killer’s (or killers’) backgrounds and motives. Many of the same people who will eagerly consume this heartbreaking and enlightening information are the ones now criticizing the reporters gathering it for them. Where the fuck does the public think this news comes from?
The public may say it doesn’t want the horrible details; ratings, circulation, and traffic say the public is lying. The public may claim it values accuracy over speed, and that it is monstrous to contact witnesses this soon after a tragedy; the broad and voracious consumption of breaking reports, and the tendency to spread them as far and wide as possible, argue otherwise. The public will definitely immediately turn on CNN when news is breaking, then mock CNN for having clueless reporters uselessly speculate because there’s nothing to report yet, then turn to another channel to see if they’ve got something to report.
No outlet could conceivably think of sitting out the race to report something like this. Before television, when getting news before competitors was a question of days, newspaper reporters knocked on doors. Before the internet, when being first was a question of hours, TV trucks camped out in front yards. Now reporters tweet because it is the fastest (and, for the moment for non-local outlets, the only) way to contact those who have announced themselves as witnesses. It’s logical, it’s efficient, and it’s about a million times less ghoulish than what came before it.
The basic process of reporters asking strangers what they saw has been going on for a very long time now. If there’s been a change in recent years, it’s that the public—on whose behalf reporters gather and distill first-hand accounts—can now see the raw process involved in informing them about what’s happening in the world around them. They may not like what they see, but I guarantee that that won’t change their behavior. Where it’s convenient, they’ll signal virtue by expressing disgust or high-mindedness; when they’re done, they’ll read and watch the stories.
Let me say—both objectively, and as someone who had spent that Christmas Eve trying to bluff and sneak my way into a hospital to interview the badly burned family whose home had burned down because of faulty Christmas lighting—that it is immensely less invasive to tweet at someone than to do things the way reporters have traditionally done them. The witness above can ignore the reporters in her timeline. Ten years ago, they would have been waiting for her when she got home and calling until she took her phone off the hook—and not out of any bad motives, but because they wanted to get accurate facts about what had happened.
Some reporters are assholes; this doesn’t excuse them, and it doesn’t absolve anyone of foregoing basic decency when going about their jobs, but by and large, the reporters and producers doing this don’t like it any more than you do, and aren’t any more crass about it than you would be. They are human. The ones contacting victims are almost always young, resting at the bottom of the journalism totem pole. Because no one wants to do this. Getting facts is shit work. I was fresh out of school when door-knocking was my daily routine, and it devastated me. More than once I got home, exhausted and sick-mad at the world, and just cried. And then I went in the next day and did it again. Because I didn’t have much of a choice—not if I wanted to keep my job and graduate to a place where some other poor kid would have do the door-knocking instead. Reporters don’t contact victims and bystanders because they get off on it; they do it because they’re a small part of a long-established news ecosystem that begins and ends with an audience that understandably wants to know what the facts are, which is to say that it wants to hear what victims and bystanders saw.
I got out of tabloid reporting because I couldn’t take feeling awful anymore. One former co-worker said she got out of it the moment she realized she had been doing it long enough to stop feeling awful. But there are reporters wired for this stuff—the cruel, cold, invaluable business of reporting on a tragedy. It’s because of those reporters that we’re going to know anything about the terrible thing that happened in Oregon today, and if you think a public that knows what’s happening in the world a good thing, you should be glad they’re doing the ugly work.
Art by Jim Cooke