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Media Literacy Review
Center for Advanced Technology in Education - College of Education - University of Oregon - Eugene

Journalistic Ethics and Other Oxymorons

Bill Walsh, Contributing Writer

Some folks probably think that "journalistic ethics" is an oxymoron -- like "jumbo shrimp" or "military intelligence." And frankly, we so often see the evidence of media intrusiveness, media insensitivity and media sensationalization, that it's easy to believe that the media has no soul, no compassion, no humanity.

So I want to tell you about a story that the worldwide media did NOT cover a week or so ago, a story which they literally walked away from. Maybe it will (even momentarily) restore your faith in media journalism and journalists. It has for me.

The story took place in Dunblane, Scotland -- where 16 primary school children (5 and 6 years old) and their teacher were massacred by Thomas Hamilton in Britain's worst-ever mass murder. THAT part of the story was certainly covered. By the end of the day of the massacre (March 13), there were an estimated 200 reporters already in the small Scottish town. Within a day, that number had swelled to well over a thousand as radio, TV, and print journalists all rushed in to report on the tragedy. There were satellite dishes parked on the narrow streets of the small Scottish town as the world turned its attention -- and sympathy -- to Dunblane. The Queen of England arrived three days later to convey her sadness personally. Funerals for the children were to begin the day after the Queen's visit and last for a number of days.

But stop and think for a moment. Did you see any press coverage of the funerals? Interviews with the victim's parents or brothers and sisters? Shots of the graveyard covered with flowers and teddy bears sent from all around the world?

No. You didn't.

Grieving parents and shocked townspeople asked the worldwide press to please let them bury their children in peace.

And the press did just that. They left the town in an awesome and nearly unanimous act of compassion and humanity. An editorial in The Sunday Telegraph said simply that the town's sorrow "is too profound to be shared by those who are merely spectators of it. It is an impertinence to intrude." The Telegraph pulled its reporters and photographers out after the Queen's visit, as did every other media outlet.

They left one reporter and one photographer to act as a pool for the worldwide press, but even they took no pictures of the funerals.

Some things, they figured, are best endured in private. So they sacrificed a story in order to provide that moment of private grief in which parents could lay their murdered children to rest.

In this country we have come to expect a microphone shoved into your face and a camera focusing on your tears in moments of trial and tragedy. There is no such thing as a "private moment" as far as much of the American press is concerned. Our media covers births and deaths (and everything in between) as graphically and completely as possible. It seems that whatever happens -- no matter how serious or sacred or sad or private -- deserves to be shown to the entire world.

Remember the recent controversy about whether the execution of a condemned man ought to be covered on TV? Or papparazzi the world over tryingto get photos of the famous and infamous in their private moments?

We have all lived with the excesses of the media -- with their intrusiveness, their pack mentality, their apparent lack of simple decency -- for so long that it's a pleasant surprise to see them act with such restraint and (yes) humanity.

The editor of a Scottish newspaper explained his decision to pull his reporters out of Dunblane simply, by saying, "There were moral, rather than journalistic, decisions to be taken in this matter."

And so the worldwide press did the right thing. It's a shame that it's so noteworthy -- nearly a news story in itself. One major newspaper called the pullout "the media's gift to a Scottish town." I guess I'd consider it the proper and respectful thing to do rather than "a gift," but that's quibbling over words.

When the press act irresponsibly, they deserve to be taken to task for it. And when they behave responsibly, they deserve our thanks. Although it seems to happen all too rarely, in this case they behaved with restraint and compassion and dignity.

Sometimes -- not often enough, but sometimes -- we are reminded that the people who gather and report the news are just normal folks, not unlike us. The media's decision to let the people of Dunblane, Scotland bury their children in private reaffirms something very simple and special in all of us -- news gatherers and news consumers alike. Simple human decency. And for that, the press are to be congratulated and thanked.

Bill Walsh is the A/V Media Specialist at Billerica High School, Billerica, MA.