Kevin Phinney is a broadcaster, author and journalist who focuses on entertainment and pop culture. He has worked in morning drive radio, on television as a reporter, and is the author of a history of race relations seen through music, from 1619-present. A native of Brooklyn, NY, Phinney has lived and worked in Los Angeles, New Orleans and Austin, Texas. In addition, his biographical essays can be found in numerous CD compilations honoring variety of rock and soul artists. Currently he is a drama critic at The Seattle Weekly.
There are innumerable angles worth pursuing in the wake of the recent shootings in Newtown, CT. Some are arguing for tougher gun laws that restrict or ban the use of semiautomatic weapons, while others contend that it’s just these sorts of tragedies that the left uses to try to undermine the Second Amendment.
But I’d like to take a smaller element of the story, one that pertains to my own role of the matrix of events, and demand action that can and should be taken decisively and immediately. Members of the press: it’s time to agree that while the public has a right to know any and every detail that’s a factual part of understanding a story, the public does not have the right to know everything.
In covering the shootings at Newtown, several networks chose to interview children — almost certainly with their parents’ consent. But, as the old adage says, just because you can doesn’t mean you should. What possible public good is served by shoving a camera and microphone into a six-year old’s face and asking what they went through as the sound of gunfire drew closer and closer?
Granted, a certain segment of the viewing audience is going to be riveted by this. It makes good TV. These are the same people who bought a tabloid because it had a morgue photo of John Lennon or showed Elvis Presley’s open casket. These are the same people who couldn’t help but want to see autopsy photos of President Kennedy and his assassin. They’re the same folks who couldn’t wait to read the purported transcript of what was said in the Challenger cabin between the explosion that doomed its crew and the moment when their capsule hit the water, killing all on board. Does any of this “information” contribute something worthwhile to the public’s grasp of an event, or is it simply today’s equivalent of attending a public execution in the town square?
News gathering is an honorable profession, but remains so only when assignment editors and reporters in the field act as though they’re deputized to carry out their responsibilities with an instinct to relay every true knowable fact that is relevant. Now that we live in a world of 24-hour news cycles, we give air time to experts who postulate on the shooter’s frame of mind, what permanent traumas the survivors might endure, and whether this pattern of violence can be blamed on video games, cartoons, latch-key kids or what the assailant had for breakfast.
There’s no shortage of work to be done during a breaking news event, but just because airtime is a hungry beast doesn’t justify interviewing kindergartners about a bloody horror that no human being should ever have to witness, least of all a child. Construct a timeline, talk to neighbors, find a first responder, but leave kids alone in the custody of their caretakers, teachers and those who are trying to counsel them.
So, let the debate rage on about gun control. Let’s hear about how to identify the mentally unstable in our midst before they’re armed and looking down a gun barrel at each of us. But as journalists, let’s try to remember that the public’s right to know ought to be tempered with providing information that contributes to understanding an event, and not focus solely on what delivers the biggest audience.