When explanation becomes exploitation

Author: Barrett Rainey

Nearly all our lives, we adults take great pains setting ourselves apart from each other – our individualism, if you will. Whether in appearance, style of dress, cars we drive or books we read, we spend our lives expressing our differences rather than our shared sameness. Then a commonality sneaks up on us – the shared experience of all – because we were once six or seven years old. Each of us. All of us.

That one genealogical thread of age may be the largest single reason why the Newtown massacre struck our consciousness so deeply. Months after a school meant for learning became a chamber of mass murder, we’re not letting this one fade from memory as quickly as we have so many others. All of us have been six or seven. We’e all been in classrooms.

A few miles up the road from my own little burg-in-the-Oregon-woods, we had our own indiscriminate killings in a shopping mall a few months ago. But I’ve had days and weeks in that time without thinking about Clackamas Mall. Not so Newtown, Connecticut. Despite other distractions of daily living, the Newtown horror still intrudes from time to time.

Several years of my life were spent as a hospice volunteer, ministering to the dying one-on-one. Death – impending death – certain death. You learn not only how to provide comfort to the “client” – you learn to deal with death after death after death of people you come to know as friends. Even if for only a brief time. You learn how to do that. Or you fail.

But most of my life has been spent in journalism – passing along the daily events of our lives. You used to learn how to do that in much the same clinical way – observing but not getting personally involved. Not anymore.

Maybe it’s the collision of experiences in those two backgrounds that makes my disgust with so much of the media so overwhelming in these months following the Newtown killing. Most of my anger is caused by the so-called broadcast “professionals.”

All of us experience a period of grief following the death of someone close. It permeates our entire being. Some survivors or onlookers handle it better than others. But it’s always there. When the death is that of someone we don’t know or aren’t particularly close to, there may be feelings of sadness but usually not disabling grief. But what happened in Newtown – though involving complete strangers for most of us – what happened in Newton has – in many ways – shown up in a sort of national grief.

The anger I feel so deeply is directed at a national media and started just hours after the December tragedy. Almost immediately, the talking heads were going far, far beyond a professional charge to report – to inform – putting cameras and microphones in the faces of people who were grieving. Especially confused children who survived that day. Because most of the dead were so young and the means so violent and unexpected, my guess is the grief being felt overwhelmed. Some parents and other family may take years to deal with it. Some may never know a day without it.

It makes no difference if some people deliberately make themselves available – or even volunteer – for interviews. Not one of them is doing so with clear intent or full thought. None. While it’s not uncommon for someone grieving wanting to share a photo or a story about a loved one, CNN, FOX, MSNBC and all the rest should not be the platforms. Death is personal. So is grieving. Photos – those so-personal stories – are often shared with hospice workers or other health professionals. But the media has no place there. In the future, some of the grieving will deeply regret what they did. And, ultimately, the experience can cause even more extended suffering.

Cops, medical professionals, community leaders – these are the people where the story is – where the known facts are. Where the media belongs. Where we in the audience belong. A weeping mother – being interviewed in a living room decorated for Christmas -may be good for ratings. But it can also be a dangerous, personally destructive experience when time passes – the lights and cameras and reporters are gone – and the ever-present struggle with grief continues. In silence. In absolute loneliness.

We are a voyeuristic nation – for better or worse. Most of the time, it’s no big deal. But now, electronic media as incapable of dealing with the realities of Newtown as the rest of us, are the voyeurs – probing into areas that are none of their damned business. Exposing people in their most vulnerable and helpless moments.

Facts. Details. Explanations, if possible. Those are the requirements of a good journalist’s work. But interviewing stunned, grieving parents and confused children?

Explanation, yes. Exploitation, no.

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