The harm of exciting work

On Aug. 26, a man shot three people — two journalists — on live television. He got in a car and drove into our county and killed himself.

That day, my coworkers had one question for me, over and over:

“Doesn’t this excite you a little bit?”

When big national news lands in a small pond, a newsroom goes into a cold rush of activity. Send out your reporter. Call your photo editor, then text and email him just to make sure. You need photos at the scene. You need someone there.

What the reporter finds at the scene of something truly big is this: law officers corralling reporters for several hours until a public information officer can issue a statement. Meanwhile, people back in climate-controlled offices — me — hurriedly push news updates through content management systems. We’re watching TV and Facebook comments and Twitter and each other.

Does it excite you?

People duck into your office to shout the latest reports circulating on the Internet and live TV. Gotta make sure you’re not behind the curve. Gotta have something no one else has. Gotta get the story and stand out, gotta do it first or best. Make corrections, make updates. Keep that email client on a separate screen so you can see the instant the photos come in, or the next statement from a spokesman. The folks in the air conditioned offices end up learning things faster than reporters on the scene.

Isn’t it exciting?

What’s the question? Is it, “does your adrenaline run?” Yes, it gallops. You watch trucks full of broadcast reporters file into the media staging area. You see the police officer hold up a white paper so the photographers can color-balance their shots of him standing in a parking lot reading a release. Back in those air conditioned offices, regional bureaus of big news outlets throw a thousand bodies at a story. By the time you’ve finished the first story, the big outlets have already followed through on every single permutation of follow-up inquiry. They suck the story dry. They move on to the next big national thing and leave behind a community with its head spinning, wondering what just happened.

What were they asking me? “Do you feel more alive when a big and terrible story breaks in your backyard?” Or maybe: “Does a story like this satisfy the urge that called you to a career of reporting and writing?”

Here’s what I said: “It doesn’t excite me when two reporters get shot and killed, no.”

Three people died, a fourth sent to the hospital for a gunshot wound. I felt an adrenaline kick, that old familiar feeling, when it dawned on me that hey, the 16 mile marker of Interstate 66 eastbound — where Vester Flanagan shot himself in the head — is right inside Fauquier County. What I felt was the need to do my job, because with something like this, the only way out is through.

Does big public safety news excite me?

Would it excite you to be the one to knock on the door of a suburban home and tell the shocked family inside that their neighbor had committed suicide — to be the one breaking that news, face to face, because they hadn’t yet heard it from the authorities? Would it thrill you to talk to parents who lost a child to a car accident or a murderer? Would it put a spring in your step to watch a house burn to its foundation with someone still inside? Ask me some time, because I’ve done all of this.

Here is the truth of community news: you talk to your neighbors. You report about your neighbors. You publish stories about your neighbors. It’s your community, and news workers forget that at their peril. Sooner or later, that adrenaline surge wears off. The story comes out. People stop commenting on the link. The ink cools on the page. But the world still turns, and you’re still accountable for how you touch the lives of other people.

Do you know what happens when you get excited about big, breaking news stories? Websites gleefully share embedded videos of Flanagan killing his victims on social media platforms with autoplaying video. They turn Facebook and Twitter into a delivery system for snuff films. Did you know the New York Daily News ran stills from the video of the journalists’ deaths, the video Flanagan filmed while he shot them?

You can find it if you look: a triptych of shots. You see a muzzle flash, almost like a first-person shooter video game. You see the expression of horror stamped on his victim’s face. You have no choice but to see it, because a news team of adults decided to slap these images on the front of their wretched tabloid word toilet.

Gawker Media makes the argument it was a good and effective news cover. I haven’t read their explanation all the way through, because I could only stay on that article for five seconds before my blood boiled. But I imagine the argument is something like this: we need to see, up close, the effects of ready access to firearms and the paucity of mental care. I figure the argument goes along the lines of Emmett Till’s open-casket funeral: this, this is what the we are capable of, what we’ve done, and you can’t ignore it any more.

A reckoning on gun culture and health care is long past overdue, yes! Here is what bothers me about that cover:

-The screaming impact typeface, the word “EXECUTED,” the three sequential frames bellow sensationalism. It speaks of editors and production crews rubbing their hands and going, “Wow, wait till they see this!”

-Emmett Till’s mother requested the open-casket funeral. She invited people to take a look at the monstrous thing done to her son. I promise you the New York Daily News didn’t know these reporters from Adam.

-They didn’t just use the live camera footage of the murders, which is plenty horrific enough. They had to go the extra mile and pull stills from the video the killer uploaded himself.

That’s what happens when you get excited. You forget you’re dealing with people. You forget you’re writing to an audience. You just regurgitate information and images as fast as you can to get a reaction.

Almost every reporter has done something like this, usually on a much less dramatic scale. You do the job long enough and you’ll screw up. You’ll embarrass or hurt someone with what you publish — not the “afflict the comfortable” type of watchdog embarrassment that community news performs as a service, but the kind that harms people because the newsroom didn’t take a step back and a collective breath before publishing.

There’s a dangerous line between holding a mirror to the ugly side of a community and shock tactics to catch eyeballs. In community-level journalism, I promise you, the readership will know the difference and resent it for a long time. These are, for God’s sake, your neighbors.

There’s going to be a conversation about the intersection of guns and mental illness. Gov. McAuliffe broached the subject on the day of the shootings. In truth, I did not read a single release from a politician that day. I didn’t have it in me. It frustrates me that nothing will change after two people were executed on live television. It will still be easier for people who are disturbed, people in pain, to find a gun than it is for them to find help.

It frustrates me, too, that nothing will change about the news workers who get “excited” by days like this – New York Daily News and its grotesque front page, Gawker Media for sharing its image in the upper left hand corner of every one of its affiliate sites. Every single news station and content aggregator that embedded automatically-playing video of point blank murders. Every single person who, on Aug. 26, who was too “excited” to think, and saw clicks and shares where the rest of us saw horror.

I do what I do for a lot of reasons. But I could go the rest of my life without the professional “excitement” that comes from violent death.

Leave a Comment