Saturday, December 29, 2012

A New Year's Resolution every member of the media should make: It's time to retire the "If it bleeds, it leads" philosophy

Since the horrific story of mass murder in a Connecticut school, there has been much discussion about what we as a nation can do to prevent this from happening again. Members of the media have been very diligent in raising possible solutions. We need more gun control. We need to ban assault weapons. We need to revamp our mental health system. We need to crack down on violent video games. We need cops in every school.

While every one of those ideas may have merit, members of the media have missed the obvious element that contributes to our culture of violence. And all they have to do is look in the mirror.

All those crime stories that often lead national and local newscasts have a very definite effect. It's called "desensitization." In other words, when you see something horrible over and over, when it becomes so routine that it results in nothing more than a shrug, you've become desensitized to it. When we air stories of violence every single day, viewers begin to think murders and other violent crimes are no big deal.

And when kids grow up with that, when they grow up seeing the "murder of the day" on the local newscast, the result is that life doesn't have as much value. Another murder? Eh, what else is new.

The violence we cover as journalists may not be as graphic as that in a movie or a video game, but here's the big difference: it's real. It's not entertainment, it's not escapism. It's real life. And we broadcast it nightly without any thought to the ramifications, yet hypocritically get up on a high horse and slam Hollywood or the NRA for exposing the country to violence.

Look in the damn mirror.

As media people we have an incredible amount of influence, and it goes beyond the in-your-face bias that has permeated our industry. We create a perception of what life is like in a particular community. If we fill our newscast with stories of murder and mayhem, viewers may assume the entire market is one big war zone.

I think back to a time when I worked for a scanner chaser. We were covering a shootout that resulted in two dead drug dealers. A cop was smiling as we arrived, and said, "Hey, some good news for you guys. Two less pushers on the street."

With that story in mind, ask yourself this question: Do stories like that really matter to the average viewer in your market, or are you simply chasing the scanner with the belief that if it bleeds, it leads?

Look in the damn mirror.

If you want to make a difference as it pertains to violence in this country, do your part. Don't sit there in your ivory tower and point the finger of blame. There's plenty of that to go around. But we are just as much to blame for creating the perception that there is nothing but violence in our country.

Perception is reality.

Here's what we're saying to the viewers: "You want fifteen minutes of fame? Do something violent, and we'll tease the hell out of it and lead our newscast with it."

There's a reason you never see fans running onto a field during a baseball game. Broadcasters have realized that showing these people would only encourage more people to do it, so they have a policy of not showing them. With that in mind, what are we encouraging by broadcasting stories of violence every day? It's an easy way to get yourself on television, to gain a bit of fame in our reality TV obsessed society.

When you fill your newscast with real stories, when children stop seeing blood flow across the screen every night, then you've got the right to point that finger of blame. Until then, you're just as guilty.

Look in the damn mirror.

You don't have to see violence to know it exists. In the old movie "From Here to Eternity" Montgomery Clift and Ernest Borgnine engage in a fight to the death toward the end of the movie. The fight begins in a dark alley, then moves behind a wall. But the camera never moves, never follows the actors. We know what's happening, but we don't need to see it.

We know what's happening in real life as well. We don't always need to see it. Children really don't need to see it.

The "if it bleeds, it leads" philosophy needs to be retired. Local news ratings have been on a steady decline for years, and one big reason is the tendency to load up a newscast with blood and gore. But this goes beyond ratings.

You want a happy and safer new year for the children in this country? The next time you want to point the finger of blame, look in the damn mirror.


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