Like the rest of the country and the world for that matter, I am still trying to digest the massacre in Connecticut. Over my 25 year career in the TV news business, I have reported on some horrific scenes but this one takes tragedy to a whole new level. With that in mind, I am thankful I am not one of the hundreds of news crews on the scene in Sandy Hook.
So, as a bystander, I have watched the coverage and listened to my friends and family vent their anger, frustration and sadness. As a media expert, I have also been taking some mental notes on comments I have heard or read since this shooting regarding media coverage. One of the more common comments has been, “how can they (media) shove a microphone in the face of the victims or their families”? Or, “I am not sure I could deal with someone shoving a microphone in my face if it happened to me”. Here in Phoenix in the local newspaper one day after the shooting, one columnist also referred to the obnoxious task of “sticking a mic in someone’s face” (as if a note pad and pen is any different? But that topic for another blog).
These types of comments are understandable and expected but as someone who has “been there and done that”, I can tell you it’s not quite that simple or heartless. Despite common 1980’s movie depictions of the news media (see Die Hard), and the public’s perception of the common news question, “how do you feel?”, most respected and credible news organizations consider the context of a scene or story when pursuing interviews. After all, news crews are human and equally disturbed and emotionally impacted by a given tragedy. So while a viewer will typically only see the microphone and the talking head sound bite of the victim or bystander, the reality of what led up to that interview typically goes something like this:
“Hi, I am so sorry to bother you and can’t imagine what you are dealing with. My name is Rich Dubek with NBC News. Is there any way we might be able to get a quick comment from you regarding what happened?”
Many times, the answer is no and you respect their position and walk away. Some times the person says, “Sure, ask away.” But what I have never witnessed in 25 years of television news is a member of the media run up to a crime victim or witness to a tragedy and stick a mic in their face and ask, “how do you feel”? Are there exceptions? You bet. Like any other job, there are respectful professionals and those who are not. But I have found that sticking a microphone in someone’s face without at least asking for permission first, especially when dealing with a tragedy, is a one way ticket to a very short career in TV news.