Natural-born killers

October 17, 1994|By Roy Peter Clark

St. Petersburg, Fla. -- THE PUBLIC thinks that journalists are natural-born killers.

This became clear to me when I appeared on a radio talk show to discuss television coverage of a murder-suicide in Alexandria, La.

The tragedy began when a deputy sheriff killed his wife in the town's courthouse. After a two-hour standoff with the police, he shot himself in the head.

A local TV station, KALB, broadcast the event live. Viewers could even see the bullet hole in the deputy's head.

"We did not televise a suicide," Jack Frost, the station's news director later said. "The incident we televised was a situation that put the downtown area in danger, and our public needed to be aware of that. We didn't know if he was going to erupt again into violence."

He said that he "prayed for an ending without violence," and I believe him. Sadly, many other people do not.

On the radio show, I described how journalists make difficult decisions. I talked about the "two-edged sword" of going live, of the value of immediacy against the loss of editorial control.

The callers were civil and thoughtful. One asked why a suicide would be considered newsworthy. Another wondered whether the public was frightened by a real increase in crime or just a perception of it projected by the media.

Another argued that it was important for news to be

discomforting and graphic -- the Holocaust and Vietnam had proved that, he said.

What disturbed me were the comments of the final two callers. One identified himself as a former TV reporter.

"I can almost guarantee that the news director and the producer were sitting there hoping that he would pull the trigger," he said.

The other was a woman who said two members of her family had committed suicide. "I have a hunch that the news director probably prayed that it would happen," she argued. "It makes for good ratings."

I have listened to a tape of my response, and my voice is filled with confusion.

"I think it says something about the deep abyss that we're in when a thoughtful person like that can harbor the thought that a news director could hope a person would shoot himself," I said.

I have never met Mr. Frost, nor have I seen the video of the event. His explanation that public safety required extensive coverage may be a heartfelt conclusion, or it may be a rationalization.

The more sobering point is that these callers have such a low regard for journalists that they assume we would celebrate a death for a good story. This underscores a sentiment that is chillingly widespread. The Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press reported last month that 71 percent of Americans think the media get "in the way of society solving its problems."

How can a public so deeply cynical about journalists depend on us for the essential needs of the community?

What I heard from those callers was, for me, the final wake-up call. All the news directors in America should discuss this case in their newsrooms.

We need the determination to restore our credibility one news decision at a time.

Roy Peter Clark is a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies.

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