by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist
Today’s broadcast news channels require a constant feed of stories to fill their 24-hour-a-day time slots. You might think this need for material would have created a great diversity of stories aired on television and radio. With 24 hours to fill, they have the time to cover the stories that would normally go unreported and could explore today’s complex issues in great depth.
But instead, broadcast news media have found an easier way to fill the hours. They simply fixate on one subject at a time and squeeze every last drop out of it, only ending their saturation coverage when something more sensational comes along. It is a cookie cutter formula that they have perfected over decades of covering O.J. Simson, Laci Peterson, Anna Nicole Smith, Britney Spears and, most recently, Don Imus.
Unfortunately, when a real news story like the Virginia Tech shooting occurs, the great broadcasters of our day can’t seem to break out of their habit of ginning up every angle for maximum impact and emotion. Many are covering the Virginia Tech shooting with the same level of dignity and respect that they use when covering a celebrity breakup. Within hours of the ordeal, reporters were tracking down those who had lost loved ones that day, getting them on camera and peppering them with questions like, “Your friend was killed today. How does that make you feel?”
This type of reporting seems less like investigative journalism and more like cruel, sick voyeurism. What do these reporters think the person they are interviewing is going to say? The fact that anyone who lost a friend or loved one in a horrible tragedy is sad, upset, numb and grief-stricken is to be expected and isn’t news. I suppose it would be news if such a person said he was glad his friend was killed. But do any of these reporters truly think that is a possibility? No, they are just using the victims of this tragedy to fill their news programs with the most sensational story they can find. Those with particular talent are able to wrap their listeners in a blanket of fear about whether it could happen in their own towns, colleges or high schools.
Piling on are the talking-head commentators, who have their own three to five hours of time to fill each day. If you’re expecting insightful analysis about the Virginia shootings by Limbaugh, Hanity and the other constant talkers, forget it.
Instead, a number of the talking heads of radio and television seem to be doing their best to blame the victims for this atrocity. On Neal Bortz’s radio program, which airs locally on the Eagle for three hours each weeknight, Bortz asked, “How does that happen, when they could have rushed the gunman, the shooter, and most of them would have survived?” He then cut to a commercial by playing “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” by Pat Benatar.
Radio and television seem to be full of right-wing, draft-dodging blowhards who are all sure they could have taken the shooter out and are not shy when it comes to telling you what great heroes they would have been if they had only been there.
Look, no one knows how they will react when facing a gun or madness like this. That is why our police officers and soldiers are constantly training — so they can react when confronted with such intense violence. It is the height of arrogance to say that if you had been there you would have been able to stop this killer or that if the students and faculty had carried concealed weapons, they could have prevented this massacre. For anyone other than a trained soldier or a police officer to say what they would do in such a situation is pure fantasy.
The Virginia Tech shooting is an important and tragic story, and one that we need to learn from and understand. But I’m afraid all we will get from the broadcast news is sensationalism, fear and speculation. I think the country was actually better off before the 24-hour news channel, when important stories were covered in a shorter amount of time — just enough time to tell the real news.