Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Our Hysterical Media

By Laura James

I have three theories on why the mass media hypes certain types of true crime stories. First, certain kinds of cases hit our buttons and drive up viewership. Second, exaggerating a case to "historic" proportions makes the journalist feel more important, since it strokes the ego to think one is reporting on a history-shattering event. Third, whatever drives up ratings is likely to have a divisive political angle worth exploring for ratings the next day.

Every media outlet in the country is guilty of these sins. I can prove that. Outrageous sensationalism is most often associated with mass murders, especially those committed with a "semi-automatic weapon" (news flash: most guns are "semi-automatic"). Another kind of case that attracts a lot of hype, over-analysis and speculation is the family annihilator.

There are dozens of workplace shootings every year. We'll hear about one and only one, I'd guess, this year. Sadly, that recent massacre took place in a city that had experienced just such a madman's rampage decades ago. Very few news outlets bothered to mention that earlier incident. Why? They prefer to think of every story they cover as unprecedented and unique. Precedents spoil hype.

Here is more proof. The most respected media outlets in the United States sensationalize true crime stories to the point of making blatantly false statements for the sake of a great opening sentence.

The mass shooting at Virginia Tech was not even close to being the worst massacre in US history, or even the worst school massacre in US history. But it was hyped exactly as such by none other than these outlets. (I noted the exact quote in case the links expired, and many did.)

On the Virginia Tech massacre, every single statement a false one:

MSNBC - "the worst school massacre in US history"
ABC - George Stephanopoulos: "The worst campus massacre before Virginia Tech was back in the University of Texas in 1966."
Newsweek - "worst massacre in U.S. history"
Time - "the worst massacre in US history"
Baltimore Sun - "the worst school massacre in US history"
Los Angeles Times - "the worst school massacre in history"
Court TV Crime Library "the worst mass murder in American history," indeed! This is a particularly egregious and unforgivable error on a website that purports to offer encyclopedic treatment of historic crimes, including articles on the Bath massacre and Mountain Meadows.
New Jersey Star-Ledger - "America's worst campus massacre"
Atlanta Journal-Constitution - "worst campus massacre in US history"
New York Daily News - "the worst campus massacre in American history"
Troy Record - "the nation's worst massacre"
WorldNetDaily - "America's worst school massacre"
Campus Times - "worst school massacre in United States history"
Shreveport Times - "worst massacre in American history"
Asheville Citizen-Times "The worst massacre in U.S. history"
Janesville Gazette - "the worst massacre in US history"
Roanoke Times - "worst school massacre in US history"
Daily Titan - "worst massacre in US history"
Bakersfield Californian - "the worst massacre in the country's history."

You'd think the press would've remembered having to correct their reporting when they erroneously fluffed the Columbine massacre as the "worst ever." Oops - I assume too much - did they correct themselves?

For the record, the worst school massacre in U.S. history took place in Michigan. The worst massacre ever is more difficult to discern because of all of the horrific examples. There was never a need to exaggerate any of them.

* * *

Once a newspaper touches a story, the facts are lost forever, even to the protagonists.

--Norman Mailer

1 comment:

FleaStiff said...

A good deal can be attributed to the pace of live. Newspapers used to have deadlines but atleast there was some restraint imposed by the newsroom editor and the re-write desk. Now, its all Breaking News All The Time. The focus is on the entertainment value and getting something visual on the screen.

Thomas Jefferson felt the market place would reward responsible journalists in a society wherein there was an educated readership. He was wrong. However, I still think a free press is far better than a controlled one. Its simply a question of what ever happened to self control.