Friday, November 22, 2013

Would modern technology change JFK coverage?
It’s not hard to picture Dealey Plaza in Dallas lined with thousands of people waiting to get a glimpse of a presidential motorcade. But instead of one lone figure with an 8mm film camera, imagine thousands of observers armed with a smart phone or tablet.

What if they had 24-hour cable TV, Internet, social media, and portable media devices like smart phones and iPads in 1963? This is a question my students and I, along with my colleague Prof. John Lofflin, pondered yesterday.

We all agreed that the assassination would have been tweeted and YouTubed almost immediately. Certainly, there would have been high quality video of the motorcade, and of the fateful moment. We agreed as well that TV news networks would probably have faced an awful ethical decision—whether to use the most gruesome video on the air. If you were CNN, would the pressure to use such video, knowing that Fox might show it as well, be overwhelming? Lofflin said he would show the video, but black out the moment that the fatal bullet struck the president. As a peace journalist, one trained not to inflame or exacerbate an already bad situation, Lofflin’s idea seems sensible.

We also agreed about the vital role of broadcast and print media to help news consumers sort through what would certainly have been hundreds of thousands of tweets, Facebook and blog posts, and images (or purported images) of the event. 

Since social media and Internet exist in 1963, imagine the rumors, conspiracy theories, and false reports about suspects germinating online. Imagine as well the pressure of the 24-hour news cycle combined with the drama of a presidential assassination, and the irresponsible journalism that surely would have occurred under the circumstances.

As we moved on to discuss more traditional media, there was some disagreement about whether newspapers would have (or should have) reported the story differently if 24-hour cable and the Internet existed 50 years ago. Lofflin said that newspapers would still have a responsibility to run a comprehensive story about the assassination (like the iconic NY Times article by Tom Wicker), even if many of the facts were already known by the audience. I’m not so sure about the need for such a piece, or at least the reflexive need to place a comprehensive story on the top of page one. I would run a summary, but subordinate it to stories that expand on the basic information the public has already gathered from the Internet, 24-hour cable, etc.

From a law enforcement standpoint, there probably would have been good cellphone photos of Oswald with his rifle on the sixth floor of the Texas Schoolbook Depository. Would this have derailed the conspiracy theories? That seems doubtful, especially since there would be thousands of new photos that could probably provide grist for innovative, previously unimagined theories. 

Looking back at the assassination, it’s already tragic enough without having to see thousands of bloody images and hours of graphic video footage. On balance, it’s preferable that the only images we have from Nov. 22, 1963 are a some grainy photos and a few seconds of blurry film.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Peace journalism principles guide disaster coverage

The peace journalism approach is about much more than covering wars.

Exhibit A is coverage of Typhoon Haiyan. In the short term, a peace journalism approach would demand that the power of the media be used to highlight the needs of the survivors, and empower viewers and readers who want to provide assistance. In the coverage I’ve seen from BBC, CNN, and Al Jazeera and read over the wire services, I’d say that the media have been vigilant (if occasionally overly dramatic) in making sure that needy Filipinos have their voices heard. TV/video media have also done a pretty good job, in my estimation, of avoiding showing the most graphic images. As peace journalism teaches, journalists should strive to not make a horrible situation even worse by re-traumatizing victims and their families by carelessly showing bodies.

One big mistake made by media is jumping to conclusions about the number killed, and airing what producers must have known were virtually made up casualty figures disseminated by local authorities. This figure, 10,000 deaths, appeared prominently worldwide. In fact, this number was incorrect. Today, the Philippines president said that the early estimates might have been four times too high. When media publicize wildly incorrect figures, this undermines their entire coverage, leading some skeptical viewers to conclude that perhaps the need for relief has also been exaggerated. This, in turn, could have a negative impact on collection of donations for the victims.

Perhaps the most important application of peace journalism principles to Typhoon Haiyan won’t occur this week or even this year. The test for journalists will be if they follow up on the rebuilding in Tacloban and other devastated areas. Journalism has long been criticized, and rightly so, for parachuting into humanitarian disasters then leaving a few days or weeks later when the story gets cold. Peace journalists, I would argue, can and should do more. We should be on the ground three months, six months, and one year from now telling the stories of the victims while holding relief agencies and the Filipino government accountable for their response to the storm. 

No matter how long it takes, the media spotlight shouldn’t leave the victims until their lives take on some sense of normalcy.