By Steven Youngblood
As peace journalists, our prime directive is to consider the consequences of our reporting.
For example, when covering terrorist attacks, this means being careful to frame our stories in such a way as to not glorify the perpetrators or sensationalize the violence. When covering something like the Sandy Hook shootings, this means reporting that doesn’t make a bad situation worse. This means producing stories that don’t re-victimize grieving families.
Unfortunately, an old dilemma, amplified by the Internet, has reared its ugly head in the post-Sandy Hook world. That dilemma—should journalists report the hundreds (thousands?) of conspiracy theories that have backed up, sewag- like, into our consciousness.
Google “Sandy Hook conspiracy”, and you’ll get over six million hits, including articles from any number of mainstream media outlets. The most famous of these wacky theories postulates that the government staged the shooting, hiring actors to play victims.
If I were in charge of a media outlet, as a peace journalist, I would carefully consider the consequences of reporting these theories. Among the questions that would burden me:
1. If I print or air coverage of the “staged” theory, for example, am I giving credence and legitimacy to this theory? Even if my report ridicules and debunks the theory, aren’t I still giving it a measure of gravitas by printing it or airing it on CNN (as Anderson Cooper 360 did on Friday night)?
2. If I print or air specific details about the person behind the “staged” theory, aren’t I giving him exactly what he wants—publicity? Even if my report ridicules him, doesn’t it still give him his desired spotlight? A/C 360 last night broadcast the theorists’ name and profession (sadly, a tenured professor), and even a sound bite featuring him. Anderson Cooper said on air that he wouldn’t reveal the professor’s website, but that’s not much of a concession, since it would be easy to find the professor’s conspiracy website with a simple search if you knew his name and university.
Cooper said several times that CNN wouldn’t normally give air time to such crazy theories, but that in this instance they did air this report because the professor/theorist is a tenured professor working at a state university supported by taxpayer funds.
Whether to broadcast this story was, I’m sure, hotly debated in the CNN newsroom. I’m wondering how much of the discussion centered on re-victimizing already wounded families and communities.
Though a strong argument can be made that this story must be reported, it’s clear that it could have been reported differently. I would have simply said that there are a number of conspiracy theories, and that one theory speculates that the event was staged. However, I would not have reported the name of the theorist/nut job. Why give him his desired spotlight? Why encourage other irresponsible theories and theorists? Why make it easier for the paranoid to find and join forces with their brethren?
The consequences of CNN’s report came home to roost at the end of the Sandy Hook conspiracy segment, when a female relative of the murdered principal called into the program. The woman caller was calm, much more poised than I would have been, in calling out the ridiculousness of the “staged” theory. On the surface, she didn’t seem overly traumatized by having to deal with this kind of absurdity. I was left wondering if the same could be said for the other families who lost loved ones in the shooting.
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Steven Youngblood is author of Professor Komagum, and director of the Center for Global Peace Journalism at Park University.