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TV coverage of Sandy Hook shootings draws heavy criticism

Reporting considered invasive, exploitative and sensationalized

Published: Monday, Dec. 17 2012 10:35 p.m. MST

Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy speaks to the media regarding the school shootings.

Associated Press

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The massacre of 26 innocent people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., instantly seized the nation's attention midday Friday, thanks in large part to a relentless stream of television coverage.

Entertainment Weekly television critic Ken Tucker lambasted the inanity with which TV outlets reported breaking news Friday as it unfolded throughout the day.

"The problem is the nature of TV news at this moment," Tucker wrote. "There is a compulsion to stay on the story for hours on end, with each network looking at the other, not wanting to become the first to cut away. The result is an endless repetition of the few known facts, surrounded by far too much improvised speculation, and the kind of sentimentality that does not do justice to the victims.

"… TV news would have done much better to pause, to resume its regular programming after the initial reports, to break in when there was something important, such as the president's statement and updates from Connecticut law enforcement, and then do what news organizations are supposed to do — gather facts; report out the story; and assemble well-written, clear-eyed reportage. Then come back on the air with fact-filled coverage."

As the human tragedy inexorably played out over the weekend with subtexts such as President Obama's visit to Connecticut, Newtown coverage continued to saturate the airwaves on Monday.

"Nearly every newscast on CNN since Friday night has been broadcast from Newtown, for example, as has been true for nearly every network television morning and evening newscast," Noam Cohen wrote Monday morning for the New York Times' Media Decoder blog.

"There has been tension, however, with some townsfolk lashing out at reporters. … Big-name anchors can be spotted going door-to-door, seeking interviews."

The Washington Times media blogger Jennifer Harper summarized, "Many Americans say an invasive, exploitative press is going too far in its coverage of the Newtown tragedy. Instantly packaged broadcast specials with flashy graphics appeared within hours of the events; an armada of broadcast trucks and intense correspondents have taken over the streets of the small Connecticut town. A scramble to interview families, first responders, politicians and the tiny witnesses to the shootings has been ongoing."

Veteran film critic Roger Ebert rendered a scathing critique of how TV news treated the Sandy Hook tragedy. Ebert proposed that the ongoing onslaught of TV coverage would perpetuate a vicious cycle by helping to trigger future shootings.

To make his point, Ebert dug deep into his archives and quoted something he himself said to NBC News in 1999, shortly after the Columbine High School shootings and in response to a question about whether violent movies are catalysts for real-life gun violence.

"Events like this, if they are influenced by anything, are influenced by news programs like your own," Ebert told NBC News in 1999. "When an unbalanced kid walks into a school and starts shooting, it becomes a major media event.

"Cable news drops ordinary programming and goes around the clock with it. The story is assigned a logo and a theme song; these two kids were packaged as the Trench Coat Mafia.

"The message is clear to other disturbed kids: If I shoot up my school, I can be famous. The TV will talk about nothing else but me. Experts will try to figure out what I was thinking. Kids and teachers at school will see they shouldn't have messed with me. I'll go out in a blaze of glory," Ebert said in his interview with NBC News.

email: jaskar@desnews.com

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