Friday, August 24, 2012

Are NY Times images legitimate news or needlessly sensational?

Editors face tough choices every day. Today, in New York City, those choices were doubly difficult.

At the New York Times, I’m guessing that there was a heated discussion about which pictures to use in its online edition and in tomorrow’s printed edition. Two of the pictures of the Empire State Building shooting they used on their website are posted here. The use of such images brings about dozens of ethical, moral, and professional questions.
As peace journalists, we’re most interested in exploring whether photos like these inflame passions, and make a bad situation worse. Among the questions peace journalists might ask in situations like this are:

1. Are these images 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? (The suspect was killed in today’s incident, but the question is still an important one).

3. What about the families of the victims? Should we consider their feelings before we publish?

4. Do the pictures in any way glorify the crime, making it (in a sick way) attractive to copycats?

My take: I would have never published these two images, based on the criteria above.

Another note from today’s shooting…CNN’s Ali Velshi taught us a lesson about instant news today when he tweeted that “there appears to be a terrorism connection” to the shooting. After a brief but intense firestorm, he retweeted that he left out the word NO in the original tweet. Oops indeed. Lesson to peace journalists: imagine the power of Twitter to virally spread rumor and innuendo. These are the kind of falsehoods that could and have led to violence when disseminated over traditional media like radio.

Twitter can be a dangerous weapon indeed.

--Follow what I hope are my responsible tweets @PeaceJourn

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Headlines, sloppy editing fuel sensationalism

From the editor: The thoughtful comments below are from my Park University colleague Gary Bachman, and refer to my previous post (see below). He certainly has a valid point. Aggregators that scan headlines and pick out keywords (without context) are certainly a problem as well. --SY

As I see it, a significant part of the problem is not the content of journalitic work but the marketing / headlines attributed to such work. The reality is that many more people quickly read headlines, drawing their own conclusions without actually reading the article. E-Journalism has ( I presume) only magnified this effect. My ISP Homepage chronicles "World News," National News," Kansas News," and Missouri News." Click on the headline and you are taken to to that article in some other venue. I will admit that I have often ben drawn to particular "headlines" only to discover significantly different content, political commentary posted as news, or poorly researched content from remote sources.

The soldier in the Temple shooting had been less than honorably discharged from the army 13 year earlier. But that "label" has some draw ( and thus generates "traffic." It also suggests a potential link and compels us to paint pictures with our minds. But he could easily have been labled as "high school graduate," "musician," "jilted lover," or "Chick-Fil-a Customer." (sorry, couldn't resist) But "soldier" easily paints a picture that draws us in like the trailer for the new Stalone & Swartzenager action movie. (In fairness it seems that "soldiers" today are increasingly being marketed as our otherwise generic, sympathetic, deserving, and psychiatrically vulnerable neighbor or relation.

Headlines generate images designed to capture our attention. This process of editing is sometimes sloppy, sometimes reckless and sometimes quite intentional.

On Monday I recieved two e-mail alerts from academic web sites that I frequent, about a shooting at Texas A&M. The headline was also prominent on my ISP home page. But after clicking on all three links I found a different story. I posted the following content back to all three sources.

"A word of caution about "headlines." Legislators in a number of states are pushing to restructure "concealed carry" (firearms) laws to allow students and faculty to carry concealed firearms into their classrooms for self-defense. Given the willingness today for folks to embrace any rumor (or otherwise verifiable lie) that supports their cause, it is incumbent upon us as educators to be clear about FACTS. A simple review of the few known facts about this incident (available already at the time of the original post here) reveals that this did not happen on the campus of Texas A& M, and thus far (an additional 2 hours later) there is no hint that the gunman or those shot had anything more than a coincidental relationship with the university. Indeed, and I suspect at least partially in response to our litigious society, the university exercised abundant caution in sending out a broadcast text warning to its students: but again this did not happen on campus.

--Gary Bachman

Friday, August 10, 2012

Sikh shootings reflect societal racism, not military culture

From the editor: Below is a FB post from a former student/friend/veteran/law school student named Javier Centonzio about the Sikh shootings.

A crazed idiot shoots up a Sikh temple and the media focuses on his military service over 10 years ago. This tragedy has nothing to do with his military service. This had everything to do with his racist views.

There are racists in the military, because the military accepts people from all segments of society. However, I know of more racist people who I attended law school with, than those who I served with. Hate and intolerance that is hidden is just as dangerous and destructive as a gunman shooting innocent people. In the military, incidents of racism are dealt with swiftly and punished severely. It isn't perfect, but it is much better than what happens in the civilian sector.

In the civilian realm, racists have nationally syndicated radio shows, television shows, and run for/are elected to public office. Someone has to stand up for the military, because all the media shows is our shortcomings and failures. Perhaps people should start looking inside their own homes before they go condemning and criticizing others. Racism is learned, not a trait one is born with.

More from the editor: Javier's comment about racism in the military rings true to me, as does his observation that racists in the civilian world get talk shows.

However, I'm not sure that I agree with Javier's comment that "all the media shows is (the military's) shortcomings and failures." I believe that coverage of individual soldiers, and even of individual units, is overwhelmingly positive, particularly coverage from embedded reporters. I also believe the press does a pretty good job of going to bat for vets in need. CNN has spent the better part of two weeks blasting a charity for not delivering promised aid to veterans, for example. I Googled "needy vets", and many of the 3.6 million hits were media outlets soliciting sympathy (or funds) for vets. Yes, the media could do even more to help vets (by spotlighting issues like homelessness and the high suicide rate, for example), but I wouldn't say that they are doing a poor job of this now.

However, it's hard to be definitive about any of this without some hard data. I would like to see some statistics about the amount of positive vs. negative coverage of the U.S. military in the media.

Thanks, Javier, for your comments and your service.