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Thursday, September 13, 2012

The News That's Unfit

"We're hearing the frantic 9-1-1 calls from when a five-year-old fell from a nine-foot diving board..." Oh, no, we're not, I shouted, and slammed the radio off. I couldn't move fast enough, though, to avoid the horrible image and the anger it inspired. It made me remember another case from decades ago. Here in Orlando, a man came home to find both his wife and their little grandson floating dead in their backyard pool. Apparently the boy had fallen in, and the woman had tried to rescue him, but both drowned. Neighbors were there trying to help when he called emergency services. "Are they breathing?" the operator asked, and the man cried out to the neighbors, "Are they breathing?" and sobbed. I heard this on the radio. It felt obscene to me to hear this man's anguish. 
The radio reporters added to the story by knocking on the doors of neighbors to ask how they felt about the death of the lady next door and the grandson. I wondered, did they think we could not imagine what such an event would feel like unless we heard it from the people next door? Did we need some guidance as to how we should react? That felt obscene to me too. I was telling friends at church about the whole debacle when someone else walked up to the group. She hadn't heard the news story. I gave her a quick report of what that poor man found at his home, and she gasped. That was a normal, human reaction, and she didn't need any 9-1-1 recordings or interviews with neighbors to elicit it. 
"How do you feel?" has become the reporter's standard question, it seems. Most of the time, like at sporting events, it's lame, but when it comes at a time of tragedy, it's vile. If I'd been one of the neighbors asked to comment, if I could get words out, I believe I would have said something like "How the bleep do you think it feels?" and then slammed the door with more than my usual vigor. Then I'd start to demand that 9-1-1 calls be made private, at least to the extent that they could not be played on the news without the permission of the caller. 
Both of these elements of "news-gathering" seem to me like running up and lifting the veil of a grieving widow in order to snap a photo for FaceBook. Some things are none of our business.

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