In the heat of the news coverage of the quadruple homicide in Lawrence County, Ohio, criticism surfaced of the manner in which the event was presented to the television viewing public. Specifically, that journalists were insensitive in seeking reactions from grieving relatives, impassive and seemingly uncaring about the responses they received, and only interested in getting the story to satisfy someone else’s ghoulish need to know all the details.
As a onetime reporter and editor, I took issue with those complaints because I know about the difficulties of covering a tragic event. You have little information to go on at the onset and are then compelled to seek reactions from those folks who may be in the know, since authorities are tight-lipped about telling the media anything — mainly because they’re trying to figure it all out, too. And since people who knew the victims of the Oct. 11 incident were willing to speak with local TV news, it helped to fill in some gaps in the reporting. That those persons interviewed responded through tears and raw emotion didn’t make me comfortable either, but if they agreed to talk with the news, then they should be heard.
While there may be some journalists who don’t care one way or the other about what happened, and are willing to exploit it for all it’s worth, the brutality of the crime 23-year-old Arron Lawson of Pedro is accused of committing had its impact, I’m sure, on reporters covering the incident. The violent deaths of four people in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles may rate some notice in those communities, but such a killing spree in rural America that included an 8-year-old is alarming, coming as it did 10 days after the deadliest massacre in modern U.S. history exploded on the scene in Las Vegas.
The journalists, although not as close to the victims as those they spoke with, felt the same emotions of those affected by the slayings along Ohio 93 on the way to Ironton. This was not an everyday occurrence in the Buckeye State’s southern end, which is why the murders of eight family members near Piketon on April 22, 2016, sent such a shockwave through the area. No, the struggle reporters had to face was not only getting details to readers and viewers, but in masking their uneasiness and in doing their jobs professionally.
For journalists, aside from having it drilled into them to be accurate and fair in their reporting, are trained to be objective. That means the reporter is an observer who does not interject his-or-her-self into the story with preconceived notions. They represent a blank slate upon which information and responses to questions are written and then transmitted to those seeking or interested in the same knowledge. As the saying goes, they give you the facts, you decide what stance to take on them. That journalists are unemotional in going about their business is routine and expected; this is why they are professionals working for recognized news sources and are not overzealous, unrestrained hacks whose mixture of (some) fact and (mostly) opinion only inflames the situation about which they are writing.
In today’s news market, as before, competition to get the story out there first is keen, or as some would say, killer. It means circulation for newspapers, ratings for news broadcasts and more readers of online sources because you can rely on any of them for “breaking news.” Thus, the now-familiar saying of “if it bleeds, it leads” to explain news judgment about content is still very much in play. So yes, journalists are concerned with getting the story, because if time doesn’t allow for print schedules and instant newsbreaks on local channels, reporters are directed to get it to their websites, and as quickly as possible. It may be a sad commentary on what engages us these days, but a multiple homicide in the region stirs more interest than the latest flap in Washington.
Reports of a crime of the severity seen more than a week ago not only arouse curiosity but also concern about safety, and one can only imagine how insecure people in that neighborhood felt during the 1-1/2 days before the suspect surrendered to authorities. The coverage provided by local media may have appeared excessive or even crass to some, but they were also serving the needs of a significant part of their audience dealing with something that doesn’t ordinarily happen where they live.
News media is an easy target for discontent, even more so in these overheated times when facts are questioned, objectivity in larger situations seems to have gone out the window and corporate ownership of news outlets gets some people to wondering about “agendas.” But the coverage of the tragic event in Lawrence County that we’re still struggling with when it comes to why was well-done, informative and as sensitive as the circumstances allowed by all concerned. And not at all exploitative. Just my opinion, if you will.
Kevin Kelly, who was affiliated with Ohio Valley Publishing for 21 years, resides in Vinton, Ohio.