Media misconceptions—please, don’t shoot the messenger

 

by Beth Kraft

 

It was brought to my attention last week that there are some unfortunate misconceptions about the role of the media (local or otherwise), journalists and how and why we share information with the public.

The Mondovi community lost a young man to a car accident. It has been, to my knowledge, quite some time since this town had lost someone in such tragic fashion, a situation that understandably sparked distress and emotional responses.

The report and a photo of the vehicle (taken tastefully from a distance) were received from the Buffalo County Sheriff’s Department right at the wire at press time last week, yet I felt it was important to shift some things around to give the public the facts sooner rather than later. The rumor mill can get ugly.

Yet I guess I had forgotten how ugly until after the web link to the story and photo was shared on the Mondovi Herald’s Facebook page and some people became vocal about the photo, slinging about a few knee-jerk reactions and generalizations about news people being “heartless” and without class.

Wow. Allow me to set the record straight.

While the photo of the wreckage is indeed emotional to look at, it is nowhere near as gruesome as accident photos you will see published elsewhere. Heck, I didn’t even take the photo.

This news person tries to stay out of the way as much as possible when there is an emergency situation going on. I am not a crazed paparazzo waiting on the edge of my seat for things to happen to put in the paper.

On a side note, when the police scanner starts going crazy and I hear calls for the Mayo One chopper, you know it’s going to be a really bad situation and I start praying that it isn’t somebody I know. That’s getting harder and harder to do now that I’ve lived in this community for almost six years.

Why even run a photo at all, you ask? There are a few different reasons.

1) It accompanied public information. I took the necessary steps to share that information in the same fashion as other, unfortunately similar, stories. It’s called a standard of practice. As a journalist, if you don’t stick to your standards (big city or small) all of the time, you might as well throw your credibility right out the window.

Who am I to withhold information that I know will be shared other places? Should I really look to treat Mondovi’s news differently just because it is a small town?

Among the many things I learned in college (yes, I have a degree), I learned that you don’t get to discriminate with information depending on who is involved/affected (remember the standards?). To suggest that a local newspaper be “soft” with information that just plain isn’t is scary to me. It’s small-town politics at their worst.

Furthermore, once you start tip-toeing around sensitive news, it becomes a slippery slope and people might start to wonder what else you might be censoring.

If I was willing to handle news content on a case-by-case basis, I would have to go through the court records page every week and decide which names/incidents to take off so that no one “feels bad.”

Does it seems heartless? At times, perhaps it does. Reporting news like tragic incidents is truly a lose-lose situation, but I try to handle them as fairly as possible.

2) The need for photos is, in fact, driven by the public. Newspapers don’t use photos just because they help fill space. It has been proven that stories with relevant images draw far more readers than those without. Marketing statistics also indicate that images help people retain 55 percent more information three days later.

Sometimes I find that if a story (say, about a school board or city council meeting) doesn’t have a photo to go with it, people will say they “didn’t know” certain information was discussed.

3) Good or bad, they help people quickly understand the situation. Photos can convey what words can’t, and sometimes the truth is shocking and hurtful.

Here’s a newsflash for you: I don’t need bad things happening to people to sell newspapers. I put a lot of time and effort into building connections with people in this community so that we can focus on sharing positive stories (like that of Anna Zarins on this week’s front page) as much as possible.

However, reporting the facts on the more unfortunate happenings in our community—fires, accidents, etc.—is all part of the gig, too. You have to suck it up and take the bad with the good.

Furthermore, the comments on the MHN’s Facebook page are an unfortunate reminder that we have fallen off the wagon when it comes to effectively communicating with each other. I would no sooner announce to an entire restaurant that my meal was horrible than I would blindly badger someone’s work via Facebook (and believe it or not, I’ve heard worse. Go fish.).

I think the worst part is that not one person came to talk to me, called, or sent an email to discuss the issue.

Mini soap-box moment: How can we expect today’s teens to stop cyberbullying and learn to respectfully disagree and discuss issues with each other when their “role models” won’t? It’s so disappointing.

Again, for the record, I don’t want to come in on a Tuesday morning (or any day) and find that I have to write up a news piece about a death in our community. About someone losing a son far too young.

I didn’t want to write about the Loewenhagens losing their home and their dogs to a fire a few years ago because I kept getting choked up thinking about what they were going through. I’ve never been able to write about Zayvier Barnes and the playground the Eleva community created in his memory without going through a few tissues, either.

Often when I write my stories, I end up putting myself in other people’s shoes to attempt to understand all aspects of the situation and topic at hand.

Yes, truly, I am heartless.

The sad thing is I’ll bet the individuals who launched those Facebook comments from the hidden comfort of their computer/smartphone screens won’t even read this column to learn a thing or two about how newspapers and the media actually work. After all, there’s no picture to go with it.

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