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Wednesday, Dec 19 2012 11:00 PM

Why media coverage of this tragedy matters

By The Bakersfield Californian

Turns out the Facebook post in which actor Morgan Freeman blamed the media for school shootings like the one in Newtown, Conn., was a hoax. But, sadly, others have expressed dismay over the media's involvement, including Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood, who, in these pages Tuesday, accused the media of making "a martyr of a mass murderer." Youngblood noted that potential killers can watch coverage of the massacre, see the shooter's picture and read about his life, and "they begin to plan."

Anyone who has critically studied the news coverage of the Dec. 14 massacre knows that's utter nonsense. No news coverage that we've seen has glorified or made a martyr of the Sandy Hook shooter. In fact, there is surprisingly little information about the shooter available. He had no Facebook profile, nor by most accounts, any friends. We know little about the killer other than his name and his age.

The media used to be blamed for spurring terrorism attacks, too. But can anyone really imagine the media not covering an event like 9/11 and not naming al-Qaida as the perpetrator? Or how about the Benghazi terrorist attacks? Following that attack there was an outcry for more coverage, not less. Just think of the conspiracy theories that would be flying around if the media refused to report on the people behind these tragedies.

It's fine to be critical of the media's coverage of the Connecticut shootings. Some criticism is valid: For example, some news organizations, in their rush to be first, dispatched misinformation in the aftermath's first hours. We cringe, too, when we think about the sheer number of reporters combing the streets of that small, grief-stricken town with cameras and microphones. But none of this coverage served to glorify the killer, as Youngblood suggests. If anything, it glorified the heroism of the school's educators, some of whom paid with their lives, and the grief and compassion of the townspeople -- and the world. The knowledge that we as a nation, as a community of Americans, can share our profound grief with Newtown, and with each other, can be cathartic. But that catharsis wouldn't have happened without news coverage -- respectful, poignant news coverage.

We've read comparisons between the shooting in Newtown and a similar attack in China the very same day that resulted in 23 injured schoolchildren but no fatalities -- due, presumably, to the fact that the deranged attacker had only a knife. Initially, the Chinese press gloated that the difference was America's liberal gun laws. But the gloating turned to dismay when Chinese officials began to recognize the depth of the empathy and mourning in America compared with the shocking indifference of the media-restricted Chinese to their own tragedy.

Youngblood is right about this: Notoriety-seeking copycats exist. He sees the phenomenon at work every day in his dealings with gangs. But there's little we can do about twisted minds except to address the root causes of twisted minds -- mental illness -- and their access to guns.

Understanding who committed the crime, and why, is a part of understanding how these attacks happen and what we might do to prevent them in the future. We achieve that understanding, in part, with news coverage. But media can also provide a window into our humanity and, as such, is a vital component in the healing that must now take place.

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