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The “Right to Know” and Contributing to Bad Behavior

2012 December 27
by Brian Goff

Disclaimer: The shooting of schoolchildren is a serious and disturbing event, creating strong emotional response.  The connections to media coverage of sporting events explored here are not meant to trivialize those killings or find an “equivalency” of minor infractions with murder.  Instead, the purpose is to explore motives and incentives.

In “The Medium is the Motive” the Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto goes beyond the Second Amendment issues related to the tools of mass killings to discuss the First Amendment issues regarding motives or incentives.  He quotes the Washington Post with “He [the killer] will long be remembered.”

That suggests a fairly simple answer to the vexing question of why people do things like this: They do it for recognition … To suggest such a banal motive is neither to diminish the evil of the crime nor to deny that the killer was mentally ill. Ordinary motives–money, jealousy, revenge, pride–can lead insane people to do monstrous things … Our point here is that the medium is the motive: If these killers seek recognition, it is available to them because the mass media can be counted on to give extensive attention to their horrific deeds. They are, after all, newsworthy, and they do raise important questions of public concern, not only about the availability of weapons and the vulnerability of “gun-free zones” but also about the treatment of mental illness.  We journalists often proclaim high-mindedly that the public has a right to know–and we’re right. But as in the Garden of Eden, knowledge is dangerous. An industry devoted to serving the public’s right to know gives twisted and evil men the means of becoming known.

The basic point, recognition is a motivator and media attention spurs imitation for the sake of recognition, immediately resonated with me in regard to media coverage (or non-coverage) of bad behavior during sporting events.  During the 1970s, fans dashing on the field, with and without clothes, in search of some brief air time became the rage.  Initially, the sports cameras followed these fans with producers finding entertainment value in them.  Before long, the TV decision makers (or sports leagues) sensed that the minute of fame for the on field frolics likely spurred copycats galore.   Ever since, the cameras immediately cut away from the revelers, usually with an indignant statement by one of the announcers to the effect of “not encouraging these kinds of idiots,” or, in Taranto’s phrase, to keep the medium from becoming the motive.

Paradoxically, minor infractions, running the bases or sprinting across the field naked, prompt the media to censor their own coverage.  The viewers “right to know” is subjugated to the objective of demotivating the behavior.  (Of course, there are still thousands of people in the stands, which provides considerable attention).  As the seriousness of offenses rise, however, the media would never consider subjugating the “right to know” even if the massive distribution of information about the offense only serves to attract and inform copycats.  Of course, the “right to know” is inextricably connected to viewer demand for information.  With minor offenses, viewer demand for more info is small so the media can appear high-minded in their self-censorship without losing viewers.  With major offenses, viewer demand for more info is high.  Somebody will cover it, so if one body were to self-censor, they would merely lose viewers to some other outlet.

My point is not to draw the line on what is covered and not covered.  It’s to point out that tradeoffs exist with respect to freedoms (whether related to First, Second, or other Amendments) and other objectives (safety, health, time, …) and that decisions regarding these tradeoffs (personal, organizational, or governmental) are not only difficult but also easily result in paradoxes and inconsistencies.  One objection to this discussion might be that suicidal killers can’t be in it for the attention.  Taranto offers a rebuttal to that view.  Readers can evaluate how compelling it is.

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