Interview: A Look At The News Media’s Role During Tragedy, Las Vegas

Oct 19, 2017

After a shooter killed dozens of people during a country music concert in Las Vegas this month, media reports began detailing the timeline and possible motives, as well as stories of survivors.

So how does this type of news coverage impact the psyche of the public? And what is the media’s role exactly?

Reno Public Radio’s Noah Glick spoke with Caesar Andrews, the Leonard Chair in Media Ethics and Writing at the School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, to learn more.

KUNR: We’re dealing with yet another mass shooting situation with the recent massacre in Las Vegas. The media coverage has been comprehensive and detailed. Ethically speaking, what responsibilities and duties does the news media have when covering these sorts of events?

Andrews: I think the first obligation is crystal clear—and that’s to get things right. And that means to reflect the reality of what is occurring or what has occurred, and to do so in a way that is accurate, where the information is accurate. Now that’s the simple or simplistic formulation, but starting out the primary obligation is to give information to the audience that helps the audience make sense of what’s going on.

How does coverage for mass shooting like the massacre in Las Vegas differ from coverage for other tragic events, like the recent hurricanes we’ve been seeing?

All different forms of tragedy create a level of chaos, so that’s a similarity. And in chaos, sometimes the simplest facts can become fuzzy. I guess the differences are really more in the psychological realm.

The fact that when you have a violent, outrageous incident of the kind that you referred to in Las Vegas, the mindset of humanity gets altered a little bit. It’s very difficult to reckon with the ‘Why?’ You don’t have that element when you’re talking about storms, in part because we recognize that these are forces of nature, they do what they do, and as disastrous as they are, as tragic as they are, there is at least a basic understanding of the why.

So the difference in the coverage is this preoccupation and even obsession with the why, at a time when finding out the why is very difficult to come by.

Is there anything about the media coverage that stuck out in your mind? Anything that was handled well and maybe not so well?

Part of the depressing nature of a series of violent incidents of this kind in this country, is that there’s an unfortunate familiarity to it. I think there was the usual diligent attempt to try to have a handle on the scale of what was going on.

I’m also aware that there was a tremendous level of coverage with this story, as has been the case with previous tragedies. I think to some extent, the filling of the void that’s there, when there’s intense interest in trying to figure out what’s going on, I think there are all kinds of elements willing to fill that void. Sometimes legitimate journalists, people really struggling trying to find what the truth is, what the facts are, what’s really going on. Then I think there’s a branch of people, I would not necessarily call them journalists, but there are people who do things that journalists do, meaning they make information available. They make photos and videos available. And some of the motivations are just different.

But I know by glancing online, at looking at social media, that there was a range of all kinds of information that had no association or relationship at all with the truth or with facts. Yet it’s out there.

Is there anything that we’ve learned from previous mass shootings? Are there any lessons we can take into account?

People who have studied these incidents have talked about things along this line. First of all, be very suspicious of everything that’s stated in the early throws of the story. Because in many cases, that information is simply wrong.

Be very suspicious and reluctant to declare numbers with certainty. Be extremely reluctant to start attempting to explain elements like the why of something that has happened.

In a business that thrives on rushing to judgment and rushing to get the information to the audience, you really have to resist stating things with degrees of certainty. Because that certainty is often times misplaced, again in the early throws of a story.

Let’s talk about social media. What’s the role of social media in coverage, especially when it comes to breaking news?

I think social media is one of the most fascinating areas in the history of communication. I think it has so much good that it does in terms of providing access to information and allowing people to express their views, and allowing them to get at the views of others.

At the same time, there’s a tremendous downside. I would say that there is an obligation of media to get the story right, to be obsessed with the facts and the accuracy and the other kinds of things. And when they make mistakes, to correct, and not in a grudging way.

There’s been lots of news coverage about the role of Facebook essentially becoming a news organization. So what’s the future of that look like?

I think part of what needs to happen is that those companies need to take responsibilities for the algorithms. Some of the information that rose to the top of the news feeds and the news listings for those social media entities was confirmed bogus information. I don’t think there’s a magic answer, but sort of acknowledging the obligation is a starting point. And more importantly is to put in place systems on those particular websites and that social media that there’s a certain degree of general legitimacy to the information that’s there.

I want to know the balance between tech as the solution versus humans as the solution. People go to Google because they assume Google will give them the right information. So if that’s the case that there’s potentially wrong information being fed by Google, how does that get fixed? Can you trust Google to fix Google’s problem?

I think you want to have the expectation that Google will respond to that obligation and responsibility. Even if those companies had the most explicit, the most profound, the most high-tech solutions in hand, it’s still going to be necessary for individual consumers to retain a level of what journalists should know: skepticism.

I think it doesn’t work unless there’s a degree of media literacy on the part of people consuming information. The overall problem could be addressed, but there are just too many sources of information for any company, in my view, to come up with the ultimate answer.

What would you recommend to people in terms of media literacy? How do you teach yourself to become media literate in a way to understand bias? And to understand what is information and what is really just talk?

That’s a good issue, and I certainly don’t have the ultimate approach or answer to that. We all as individuals believe what we believe. But my intellectual honesty would say to me that whatever my persuasion happens to be, it’s probably not possible that people who take my broad perspective are always right. It’s probably not possible that people of my ideological, political or whatever persuasion have a monopoly on the facts. I think it helps to be able to explore, in terms of media, things that you would not normally take a look at.

There’s some kind of instinct that says, ‘This smells as fresh as a daisy,’ or ‘it smells rotten.’ And that’s not ideology-driven. That’s just your own instinct as a human that’s trying to discern right and wrong, and truth and lies every day. An instinct is there, if you just sometimes listen to it.