Yesterday, a little after lunchtime, one of my colleagues in the New York bureau announced news that sadly isn’t so uncommon here in the US. Another shooting had happened at another school in another American state.
This time, the incident took place at a community college 20 miles or so outside of Houston, Texas. And this time, like many times before, the cable news networks were all over it.
Switching between each of the major round-the-clock news sources, viewers were given little variety in how the news was presented to them. Each network ran with aerial shots of the campus from their circling helicopters. The camera zoomed in on figures in bulletproof vests, emergency vehicles and even bodies being treated by medical staff. These vague yet invasive images were accompanied by bold headlines and seemingly ill-informed commentary from former-FBI agent types who had been brought on the line to postulate about some cause or detail that, so soon after the event and before the release of comprehensive official information, was pure speculation.
Without specific information to convey but with time to fill, news anchors and their guests made obvious comparisons to any example of American gun-related violence that came to mind. Occasionally an interview with a similarly ill-informed local would interrupt the cycle alongside out-of-context images of the school grabbed from social media networks or Google Earth.
After 15 minutes of watching, no more news than the original headline could be gleaned from any of these channels so why did they all feel the need to spend so much air time covering so little? And, as seen during the coverage of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, how responsible is it for news networks watched by millions to piece together stories as they happen?
During the first few hours following last December’s shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, CNN named the gunman as Ryan Lanza. Viewers and reporters took to social media to contact him. Photos of him were broadcast across networks and police went to his home in New Jersey. When it was realised that the gunman had in fact been Ryan’s brother, Adam, it was too late to have stopped the public harassment of Ryan on the day he was to discover that not only had his brother killed 27 people, he had also killed their mother.
Protected by the US Constitution – as is the right to bear arms – press freedom is an expected liberty in the United States. Despite being ranked 47th in the world in the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index of 2012, there is little that American news outlets are prevented from doing. But when it comes to rolling shots of scenes from mass shootings, interviewing crying children after such events (as seen at Sandy Hook) and making conclusions via questionable sources, are some parts of the US media just a little too free?
The non-stop coverage of catastrophes like school shootings gives the impression that networks are idly waiting for something to happen. There’s an unspoken hope that the helicopter camera will stumble over a dramatic image or the reporter will manage to interview an emotional witness. That’s not the news that I want.
With seasoned producers and journalists, news networks should be focusing on what sets them apart from social media feeds and citizen journalism. They have the ability to edit, to pick what is appropriate to report on and when to do so. The power of these networks lies in their authority. Rather than trying to emulate 24-hour online sources, new channels should set themselves apart through their ability to edit and be accountable. Otherwise why do we have professional journalists at all?
Aisha Speirs is New York bureau chief for Monocle.