Following the terrorist attacks on the Brussels airport in March, news organizations, including the Daily Herald, faced an achingly familiar quandary. What pictures should we publish that vividly depict the horror of the crime without offending readers’ sensitivities or sensationalizing the act? The dilemma had an added dimension in the wake of the Orlando killings, finding its way into our own discussions about the implications of publishing certain text.
The text in question was an excerpt from transcripts released by the FBI of the conversation between the Orlando shooter and Orlando’s emergency 911 Dispatch operator. Like almost everything in the acrid smog of today’s political environment, the issue quickly became obscured by an outpouring of vitriol against President Obama. But at its root, it’s a legitimate concern. If we publish the verbal manifesto of a crazed murderer, are we helping spread his vile message or encouraging sympathizers to similar vile acts?
Two points of view were aired in our afternoon discussion. One, the concern for encouraging haters; the other, the view that if people are to recognize the ugliness of pure hatred, they need to see it in its naked reality. The latter view initially won out, with assurances to take care in our presentation, and we originally planned to publish the transcripts. But as often happens, other important news developments throughout the evening demanded space, so we settled for a news story about the transcripts, which in fact included practically all the relevant remarks.
We are in the business of delivering information, not withholding it, and we believe that a strong democracy requires an informed citizenry. If only the issue were that simple.
For, we also know that, unfortunately, news reports have unintended consequences. We report suicides in only isolated specific circumstances, because we’ve seen the research that such reporting can encourage vulnerable individuals. We report bomb threats only in rare cases because history has shown such reporting can produce copycats. We strictly avoid photographs of dead bodies or even bodies under sheets, because we don’t want to sensationalize death or disturb sensitive readers who can’t unsee something purely horrific thrown onto their doorsteps.
In the case of the Orlando shooter, we leaned toward publishing his conversation, letting readers see his words and assess for themselves whatever made him capable of such a terrible act. That is our instinct, though we know very well that every storm, every assault, every disaster, every bombing, every (sigh) mass shooting must be judged according to its individual circumstances. I can’t speak for whatever the real motives were of the FBI, the Department of Justice or the Obama administration in releasing a limited and originally redacted version of the 911 transcripts, but I certainly understand the concept, as expressed in a DOJ press release, of withholding “a publicity platform for hateful propaganda.”
Our free society thrives on information. We can also be threatened by it. Keeping both facts in mind when making news decision is no small responsibility.
Jim Slusher, firstname.lastname@example.org, is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/jim.slusher1 and on Twitter at @JimSlusher.