A recent breaking story here in Los Angeles has stirred up an important debate about social media, the quest for the “exclusive” picture, and the bounds of propriety and civility.
On July 7th, four people were hurt when a ride derailed at the Six Flags Magic Mountain amusement park. The accident was caused by a tree branch falling on the tracks.
More than 20 people were stuck dangling in their seats for several hours, 40 feet above the ground, until firefighters could reach them.
As news photographers arrived, one of them spotted a Tweet from someone claiming to be a trapped rider. The photog immediately Tweeted back, asking, “Do you have pics?”
His request unleashed a wave of criticism, as Mediabistro points out:
“That tweet was quickly pounced on as an example of uncaring media interested only in getting those exclusive photos, with one person sending a mocking tweet, ‘Stay classy @NBCLA @KHOLMESlive. You haven’t been rescued yet, might fall, but u have pics bro?’ “
If you work in the media, sooner or later you’re going to be called insensitive, callous, unfeeling, and a bunch of other names. We know that many of our viewers, listeners and readers look down their noses at us, even as they hungrily consume our product.
But in this case, do the critics have a point? Or are they overreacting?
When everybody has a phone/camera/internet device in his pocket, when picture-snapping has become so ubiquitous that folks photograph their lunch before eating it and “selfies” sprout faster than mushrooms, is it wrong to ask a presumed “victim” for pics? Did the photog cross a line?
Well, here’s the thing. That “line” was crossed a long time ago. Probably back in Ben Franklin’s day, when colonists first started reading newspapers. Only the tools have changed.
The job of a journalist is to get the story. All of it. Including the parts that may require doing things that leave a bad taste. Tweeting a request for a picture is exactly the same as knocking on a victim’s door or shoving a mic in his face and asking, “How did you feel?”
Tacky? Sure. Necessary? Let me ask you this: If somebody stranded on that Ninja rollercoaster did take a picture, perhaps looking straight down from his precarious perch, wouldn’t you want to see it?
What better way to convey the actual atmosphere… what it was really like up there, trapped, scared, waiting for help. If we now have the sophisticated tools to enable that, honestly, how could we not ask for the picture? We’d be derelict in our duty.
I’ve been doing some informal polling of friends and colleagues on this. Most are fine with what happened. Here’s a typical response:
“I suppose some may think it’s a bit heartless… but frankly I don’t blame the photog. He was just trying to get first (and maybe exclusive) photos for his station. It’s nothing that editors, photogs, producers and news execs haven’t done for ages. What’s the difference between that and CNN’s iPhone campaign – or the local channels here asking viewers to send in shots of breaking news?”
A former News Director in the L.A. market put it this way:
“The two aren’t mutually exclusive. You can seek the pictures/ story and give consideration at the same time. It’s important to remember that while some people don’t want to talk about what happened, many others do. It can even be cathartic for them to share what just happened.”
Now it turns out the guy who sent that original Tweet hadn’t even been on the coaster. He was either making a sick joke or trying to deceive people and call attention to himself. Which brings up another point about these new and powerful tools. That’s all they are: tools. They can be used properly or abused. You can take a hammer, drive a nail into a two-by-four, and build a house. Or you can smash a window. Social media has made it possible to instantly spread the truth when evil people want to cover it up. It has also enabled some to tell flat-out lies, dress them up very convincingly, and show them to the world in seconds. We in journalism need these tools, but we also need to be extra careful and absolutely sure we’re not being played for fools.
Need a laugh? Visit The Groaners! and check out all the ridiculous words TV newspeople keep using, again and again!