- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 4, 2003

News coverage of the lost Space Shuttle Columbia has become mired in a culture of grief and mourning for days.
Enough already.
While thoughtful or straightforward stories about loss or memorial services are appropriate, the unabated use of sorrow as a theme and dramatic device gets old, and ultimately serves to trivialize the event.
"It's as if the media has become the wailing chorus at a wake," said Robert Lichter, director of the Center for Media & Public Affairs.
"Wall-to-wall mourning has become a way to get and hold viewers," Mr. Lichter said. "There has been an almost Pavlovian rush to lead the nation in mourning, particularly in television, which is tailor-made for it."
The genuine heroic nature of our astronauts always will resonate with Americans.
"But there's some ambulance-chasing going on, and it gets morbid," Mr. Lichter said.
That must have been the feeling in Nacogdoches, the east Texas town that became the focal point for shuttle-debris recovery over the weekend.
"News vans are parked on every corner, the hotels are packed with journalists from across the globe and the parking lot at the Nacogdoches County Sheriff's Department gives a new meaning to the term 'mass media,'" noted the local Daily Sentinel yesterday.
When asked how he was holding up, Sheriff Thomas Kerss told the Sentinel he didn't have time to think about such things, and was "focusing on the needs at hand."
One newspaper had the nation seemingly on the cusp of a veritable breakdown.
"There was to the sadness today a sense of misfortunes multiplying, as America sorts through another tragedy and a national gloom deepens," noted The Washington Post yesterday.
"Again and again today one heard foreboding in the voices of Americans," the paper observed later.
Though "disaster" plays a close second, "tragedy" has been the operative word in both broadcast and print for three days.
The story continues as "Tragedy in the Sky" on the Fox News Channel and "Columbia: The Shuttle Tragedy" on CNN.
Both broadcast networks and cable channels succumbed to the allure of instant "experts" and high-tech graphics, juxtaposing their sensitive "tragedy" coverage with colorful split screens, computer animations and maps.
Both ABC and CBS cut to portraits of the lost astronauts while President Bush gave his simple and eloquent message to the nation Saturday afternoon a moment that should have stood alone without dramatic embellishment.
Florid language also interfered. One Fox anchor characterized the shuttle loss as "horrific" by 9:20 a.m. Saturday, before the destruction had been confirmed.
Newspapers also emphasized the melancholy.
"Tragedy Over Texas" read headlines in both the Dallas Morning News and the Green Bay (Wis.) Press-Gazette, while it was just "Tragedy" at the Des Moines (Iowa) Register and the Las Vegas Review, and "Tragedy Strikes Again" at the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
The Hartford (Conn.) Courant and Topeka (Kan.) Capital-Journal both used "A Great Sadness," while the Detroit News used "And Again We Grieve."
But people can only use so much grief-centered journalism.
"About 95 percent of us take what we need from news coverage of tragedy to feel better and put things in context, and then we move on. Coverage beyond that is overkill. People can say, 'Enough is enough,'" said Charles Figley, a psychologist with Florida State University who specializes in public reactions to national disasters.
"There are those who can almost overdose on this. They see people crying on TV, all the activity, the reporters," Mr. Figley said. "The story starts to be all about themselves and their feelings. It gets transformed."
Contact Jennifer Harper at jharper@washingtontimes.com or 202/636-3085.

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