Isla Vista shooting resurfaces old debates about gun control, mental health and … the media?

As members of the news media converged to the college town of Isla Vista, a hometown college newspaper decided to withdraw

A screenshot of a Santa Barbara Independent photograph by Paul Wellman showing Isla Vista residents protesting the constant presence of TV crews in the area, according to the photo's caption.
A screenshot of a Santa Barbara Independent photograph by Paul Wellman showing Isla Vista residents protesting the constant presence of TV crews in the area, according to the photo’s caption.

A massacre in the college town of Isla Vista, California, over the weekend has renewed well-oiled debates about gun violence and mental health issues in America. But it has also raised another question: How should the media cover these tragedies?

It is a question that often gets asked in the wake of tragedies of this magnitude — seven were left dead, including the gunman, and 13 injured in the Friday night attacks — but hardly ever this quickly, with bullet holes only just being dislodged from the scene of the shootings and with victims still recovering in the hospital.

For many news organizations, the initial report of a shooting is nothing out of the ordinary: In the Los Angeles region, an hour and a half south of Isla Vista and Santa Barbara, a photographer or TV cameraman is often at the scene of such reports within the hour, if not sooner.

That was the case with the Isla Vista shooting, as photographers from the Santa Barbara Independent and UC Santa Barbara’s student-run newspaper The Daily Nexus, among several other media organizations, were at the scene late that night.

The Daily Nexus has in the past few days since meticulously covered all aspects of the story, which happened just blocks from the campus, in a magnitude and quality that rivals that of the Los Angeles Times.

In another high-profile news event, a reporter and two TV cameramen try to get a view of a protest at the Kelly Thomas memorial in Fullerton, California, in January 2014.
In a similarly high-profile news story, a reporter and two TV videographers (all three from different agencies) were among more than a dozen members of the media covering a protest in Fullerton, California, in January 2014. (Photo by Tim Worden)

The multitude of photographers and TV stations converging on a national story is nothing new, and is fairly common in the competitive news market in Southern California. But news hit Monday of an odd-man out:

The Bottom Line, UCSB’s student government-run newspaper — a rival of the independently student-run Daily Nexus — came out with an editorial: “Why We Have Not Yet Published Anything on the Isla Vista Shooting.”

“Whenever tragedy strikes,” the op-ed begins, “emergency responders and journalists are some of the first on scene and are, consequently, more likely to suffer from emotional trauma because of it.”

The staff needed time to mourn and process the tragedy, the op-ed added.

Media critics were quick to pounce on the no-reporting stance of the newspaper, with some, such as Calbuzz’s Jerry Roberts, saying the paper was skirting “its role as a community news source,” as cited by media critic Jim Romenesko.

But it’s not like there was an absence of news with The Bottom Line out. (TBL did, however, live tweet it on Twitter and now is covering it on its website.)

The LA Times alone, for example, had at least two reporters and seven photographers covering the story in Isla Vista over the course the three-day weekend, according to an analysis of its reporting and photographs.

Dozens of other photographers, as well as TV crews from the region, were also congregating in the area all weekend, prompting some residents to urge the media to respect their privacy, making signs that read things like “Let Us Grieve in Peace.”

Of course reporting from the scene is necessary, as it is the media’s job and responsibility to tell the account of a story to those who were not there, and this, being a national story, carries an even heavier importance.

But what about over-reporting? Part of The Bottom Line’s reason for not reporting on the tragedy is an ethical reason, as it cited the Professional Journalists Code of Ethics’ guideline of “Minimize Harm,” which says: “Journalists should show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage.”

The Bottom Line should be commended for its boldness in standing apart from the crowd by not heavily reporting the massacre, as it was attempting to minimize the emotional harm to its staff.

And besides, it’s not like interested residents don’t have half a dozen other media outlets at their fingertips to get the story from anyway.

By Tim Worden. Published May 27, 2014 at 2:45 p.m.

 

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