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Media coverage of Newtown shootings draws criticism

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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.

There is a line between inappropriate and legitimate reporting. Getting news right still trumps getting it first in the minds of many viewers.

In a Sunday special report, WTOP — an all-news station in the nation’s capital — reported that listeners were disgusted by news organizations that interviewed small children, even with their parent’s permission. Some were critical of networks that broke into Saturday children’s programming to report grisly details that could easily alarm young viewers. Mental health experts are now cautioning the press and public to reserve judgment on what triggered the shooter until the facts are in.

As pundits and politicians spar over gun control policy issues in the aftermath, one veteran culture critic blames the media itself for the nightmare scenario that killed so many children, recalling another shooting in another school.

“The day after Columbine, I was interviewed for the Tom Brokaw news program,” observed Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert. “The reporter had been assigned a theory and was seeking soundbites to support it. ‘Wouldn’t you say,’ she asked, ‘that killings like this are influenced by violent movies?’ No, I said, I wouldn’t say that. But what about ‘The Basketball Diaries’?” she asked. Doesn’t that have a scene of a boy walking into a school with a machine-gun?”

Mr. Ebert told the reporter that it was unlikely the Columbine killers saw it. She looked “disappointed,” he said.

“Events like this, I said, if they are influenced by anything, are influenced by news programs like your own. 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,” Mr. Ebert said.

“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,” he concluded.


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