When news stories transformed from print to television, producers easily caught on that television images could not only further their causes for truth in broadcasting, but the power of television could entertain and entice. Now, most news programs, if they want anyone to continue watching, will have a mixture of heartwarming local stories and lofty national stories, the mundane and the sensational.
The “sensational” stories bring to mind an ethical issue within news coverage: when is the news being too sensational? Is the sensationalism purposeful? The summer of 2012 saw a rise in the violent phenomenon of mass shootings, and the news media, particularly television, sought to give 24-hour coverage of the incidents.
The killing spree in a showing of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, CO brought national attention to the suspect, James Holmes, as well as issues of gun control and the effects of violence in movies and television. Last month, a white supremacist, Wade Page, opened fire in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, killing six innocent people. Suspected copycats have also been an issue.
Like the Columbine massacre and the Amish schoolhouse shootings, television news has obsessively dedicated hours to rehashing the images and events of mass shootings. This broadcasting is not a simple straightforward account, but is played out in cinematic fashion – the anchors are the Greek chorus, the victims speak out with harrowing tales of survival and heroism, and the suspect is vilified by a haunting and cold mug shot, shown on screen hundreds of times.
When the news programs of ABC, CBS and NBC are not covering the story, entertainment channels are flashing their own breaking news, even sharing tweets and Facebook statuses about the mass shooting.
On the morning of the Aurora shooting, from ten in the morning to ten at night, I found myself bombarded by the constant rehashing of the same images on ABC: pale and wide-eyed James Holmes, the numerous victims weeping outside of the theater and the Batman symbol.
Live interviews with survivors were conducted only hours after the police arrested Holmes, celebrities who were in New York were forced to give half-hearted best wishes, psychologists and police officials warned parents to talk to their children and to beware of copycats.
Amongst the top rated news programs, a competition began during the week of the shooting to see who could cover the developing story the quickest and the most often, creating a sensation on the Internet about guns and maniacs, making a celebrity of Holmes, and traumatizing a nation.
The news media’s duty is to shape events to inform the public, fairly and truthfully. The news media has more often sought to entertain rather than inform, by saturating our TV watching and personal thinking with taboos and horrors.
The news programs we watch want us to be intrigued and terrified, so that we tune in later that night to hear and see more about the tragedy. The lack of details heightens fear. We must consider what we lose when news programs overemphasize one tragic story over something just as important. Viewers begin myth-making out of the constant barrage of incomplete news coverage, and they take their myths and rumors to the Web.
While the Aurora shooting, and other bloody tragedies like it, is taking up the majority of the news, local and regional criminal cases go unnoticed. Only a fraction of the time is devoted to developing stories that do not contain taboos or controversial matters, like the stories that don’t have a supposedly-psychotic white man with a gun at the center of the matter. While we obsess over the news stories, James Holmes gets to have his fifteen minutes of fame, and then some.