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

Local TV Coverage Crossed the Lines of Decency

Bill Walsh, Contributing Writer

Before we're media consumers or media producers -- receivers or senders of messages -- we are people first. Human beings. With (hopefully) some very basic human qualities (or "morals," if you want to use that term) that make us thoughtful, feeling, caring people. I mean, I KNOW that our moral choices are often varying shades of gray -- that is very little in this world nowadays that's clearly black-and-white, right or wrong. But there ARE some things that are clearly wrong.

When the people who make our media forget their -- and our -- humanity and cross over that very broad line into the realm of "just plain wrong," we need to take them to task for it. Sure, part of that reaction comes from being media literate. But part of it comes from just being human.

A local Boston TV station's coverage last weekend of a sledding accident clearly stepped over the line of decency in a number of ways. The story is all too familiar. An 11-year-old girl and her 12-year-old brother had taken an old blue tarp and were sledding down a long outdoor stairway that ran from the street up a hill to a stately old building. The kids' 13-year old cousin tried to warn them how dangerous it was, but they didn't listen.

They sledded down the stairs and then up the side of the snow bank on the side of the road, which acted like an icy ramp and catapulted them into the street, where they struck and were run over by a passing car.

The Channel 4 News at Eleven crew reported the story and showed us the snow-covered steps they sledded down (being salted and sanded heavily to prevent any other children from trying the same thing). There was a picture of the car which ran the two kids over. And then . . . there was a shot of a little lifeless body still lying in the middle of the street, covered with a sheet. And a shot of the brother being loaded into an ambulance.

But that wasn't enough. The news crew went into the house to interview the 13-year-old cousin. As he tried to tell the reporter how he'd tried to reach out and grab his cousins on their deadly slide, he broke down. His little body shook. He sobbed uncontrollably. The camera zoomed in for a close-up.

I was saddened. Then angry. And finally furious. I don't know what comes after furious, but I was that, too.

The story was tragic enough without showing us the sheet-clad corpse of a little girl lying lifeless in the street. Or zooming into the tear-stained face of the 13-year-old who had literally tried to save his cousins from death . . . and failed. It was unnecessary It was insensitive. It was intrusive. It was . . . obscene.

There are reasons why local TV news showed us those pictures. Reasons, but no excuse.

Just as Jack and Liz (the weeknight anchors) get the weekend off, so do news producers and editors and directors. The cameraman, reporter, and newsroom staff working Saturday night weren't the best in the business. They were the weekend team -- second (or even third) string, maybe even part-timers. Their judgment about the news isn't as sharp (or, it seems, as infused with decency) as those who give us the news during the week.

Still, the footage had to be shot by a cameraman, edited by a videotape editor, timed by the news producer and previewed by the on-air reporter. Four or five people worked with those video clips before we saw them on the air. Why didn't SOMEONE object? Why didn't SOMEONE say, "No. This goes too far. This isn't news. It's exploitation. Of children. Of grief. I won't do it!"

I don't know why no one objected. Maybe they were in a hurry to get it on the air, in too much of a hurry to think. Maybe they thought that this kind of coverage was what their bosses wanted. Or maybe they thought that we needed these gut-wrenching pictures in order to understand the tragedy of the accident.

They were wrong. Wrong to think that way (if they thought at all) and wrong to show those scenes. Dead wrong. No shades of gray here. It was reprehensible. Irresponsible. Just wrong.

The people who made these decisions (for all TV stories are constructed by people) are probably not evil or unfeeling or sinister. They probably went home to their families after the broadcast. They may even have thought that they served the public interest by showing us a grief-stricken 13-year-old sobbing uncontrollably or the body of a little girl in the street.

They were wrong. Instead they showed us local TV at its worst, at its most unfeeling, at its most callous. They showed us how tragedy is exploited in the name of news.

They showed us how -- in the name of news -- basic human decency can be either forgotten or suspended, and how the real danger of television is that sometimes it makes us forget our humanity.

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