Media Loses Sight of Fair Reporting

A fast-paced frenzy that lasts, uninterrupted, for days — and then, quiet.

In the hours that followed last week’s shooting at Santana High School in Santee, local and then national news channels broadcasted live, gripping footage. Soon the airwaves were abuzz with experts offering analysis and pundits tossing out opinions.

Once again, as we have seen before in incidences of school shootings, accusations flew. Fears were voiced. A call to arms was issued. It seemed all at once as if the entire American population had devoted its energy to this pressing societal problem.

And then, all at once, silence descended. Americans looked away from Santana and returned to their daily lives, where, God willing, school shootings were not an immediate concern.

This is the cycle that has repeated itself through all of the recent school shootings: a flurry of exploitative, repetitive “”coverage”” of the incident, and then its rapid relegation to back-page follow-ups and our distant memory. Yet the media’s treatment of this issue has a long-lasting effect on us, whether we acknowledge that or not, and that effect is for the worse.

Anyone who flicked on the television on the morning or afternoon of March 5 was assaulted by images of Santee, and the tour guides through the disorganized crowds and confusing information were the newscasters “”live on the scene.”” Yet these journalists were less interested in presenting a well-informed picture of the events at hand than in edging out their broadcast competition by providing the rawest, most attention-getting footage.

One local reporter approached a woman who was sobbing uncontrollably, searching the faces of the teens that passed by, probably for her own child; he promptly thrust his microphone in her face and said, “”Excuse me, ma’am, I see that tears are streaming down your face … could you tell me what you’re feeling right now?”” The motivation was clear: He was pursuing the juiciest quote possible for the 6 o’clock news, and in an insensitive, intruding manner.

There is a standard guideline in journalism: “”If it bleeds, it leads.”” In the wake of violent and affecting school shootings, reporters exploit the suffering of the victims and their distraught families for ratings.

The media figureheads are also guilty of clouding the issue of the causes of school shootings. The wild and contradictory speculation of pundits and so-called “”experts”” serves no purpose but to confirm the preconceived beliefs of viewers and readers, and it can even give them mistaken impressions of the conditions surrounding an incident.

In his March 6 column in the Union-Tribune, Peter Rowe assigned racial motivations to the Santana shooting, citing a recent study about racism in Santee (which is unflatteringly called “”Klantee”” by its detractors). However, there is no evidence whatsoever that Andy Williams, the Santana shooter, chose his victims based on their race or ethnicity, or that he indeed exercised anything other than a random selection of convenient targets.

By furthering an explanation that has no basis in fact, writers and commentors only muddy the waters and make any genuine investigation and exploration impossible.

Perhaps the most tragic and sinister repercussion of the media’s exploitative and haphazard coverage of school shootings, such as that at Santana High, is the propagation of copycat crimes. Media outlets romanticize the killers in these cases, running in-depth biographies on them and making them household names. (Who didn’t know the life stories of Columbine shooters Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris last year?) This obsession with teens who were formerly on the fringe of their narrow school societies is enough to cause other alienated youths to idolize the murderers.

Indeed, a Maryland 18-year-old was arrested last week for sending threatening e-mails to two girls from Santee, boasting that he was “”finishing what Andy started.”” Authorities could find no personal link between the sender and Williams — in short, the only way he knew of the case was through what he read in the newspapers and saw on television. This illustrates a frightening trend wherein violence inspires violence. The media’s focus on and glorification of the shooters in cases such as Columbine and Santana causes such a cycle.

Obviously, it would be ridiculous to blame atrocious acts such as school shootings on the media alone (or on music with explicit lyrics, or video games with stylized violence, for that matter). However, reporters and commentors are irresponsibly and unethically addressing these events. While some would argue that reporters are merely responding to the public’s desire, this justification makes journalism out to be a product for the consumption of the masses, and not the responsible watchdog it should be.

So now that the last student memorial service has ended, and the pundits have spoken their pieces and received their paychecks, the media circus has packed up its tents and left San Diego county to its own devices. We are left dazed, unsure of how to proceed; we are jaded and cynical in the face of another all-too-familiar attack; we are worried; we are forgetting as we speak. The media has abandoned its obligation to inform us, choosing instead to entertain us with suffering and woo us with empty explanations.

And now they do nothing, and we are right back to the state in which we started — silence.