Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Does KC shooting coverage give voice to hate, extremism?

Peace journalism is about much more than peace and war.

That lesson is being underscored this week in Kansas City, where we are in mourning over a series of shootings that killed three people last Sunday.

Peace journalists always consider the consequences of their reporting, and, at minimum, pledge to avoid exacerbating an already bad situation—to not pour gasoline on an already raging fire.
The balance, the fine line, between giving the public the information they need and fueling the fire has been on display the last few days here in Kansas City.

From a peace journalism perspective, or the perspective of journalism in general, there’s no question that this story had to be covered. Peace journalism, contrary to some misperceptions, doesn’t ignore or soft-peddle violent acts. 

On Monday, the day after the shootings, The Kansas City Star ran a banner headline that read, “Black Sunday.” The front page featured an article about the shooter titled, “Racist views, a prison record.” The following day, The Star’s front page showcased a large photo of the shotgun-wielding shooter framed by KKK flags.

Was the Star’s coverage appropriate, or did they sensationalize the crime and give voice to hate and extremism?

The Star’s coverage of the victims was outstanding—thorough, thoughtful, respectful. Profiles of the victims were prominently displayed on page one on Tuesday, as they should have been.
The difficult question for the Star and others covering this was how to handle the alleged shooter. This is the same dilemma faced when covering other hateful acts. The Boston bombing anniversary, for example, has sparked new stories about Dzokhar Tsarnaev and questions about whether he deserves even one more word of press coverage.

In the KC case, Peace journalism asks, what is the consequence of giving voice to the alleged shooter’s extremist, racist views? What impact does showing a KKK photo have? Does any of this coverage give credibility, gravitas, to the alleged shooter or his racist cause?

I agree that the alleged shooter must be covered, but I disagree with the Star’s decision to cover him on page one, particularly on Tuesday, where the shooter’s profile was carelessly laid out alongside profiles of the victims. (Click here to see .pdf of Tuesday's front page). Some might believe that this implies some equivalency between shooter and victim. As for the front page photos of the shooter (mug shot on Monday; shotgun-toting KKK flag shot Tuesday), I challenge the decision to run these on page one. Does featuring a prominent front-page photo of the alleged shooter that is much larger than the tiny photos of the victims imply that the alleged shooter is of primary importance? That certainly wasn’t the Star’s intention, even though the way the page is laid out might leave some with that misimpression.

To their credit, The Star ran a thoughtful, introspective column by reporter Dave Helling in Tuesday’s paper titled, “Reporting on Extremism: Ignore it or expose it?” In this piece, Helling wrote, “It’s unlikely daily front-page coverage will stop the damage from the worst people out there. It could make it worse.” I agree. Will the kind of celebrity now enjoyed by the alleged shooter encourage others to act on extremist views? 

Helling is also correct when he wrote, “The journalist’s usual answer is balance—expose what you can without overexposing the rantings of an anti-Semite.”

It’s encouraging to see Helling’s analysis of the impact of the Star’s reporting. It is this kind of reflective, deliberate decision making about coverage, as opposed to the press’ usual reflexive sensationalism, that gives me hope that journalists can operate more professionally and responsibly. 

--Follow me on Twitter @peacejourn --

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