“It was bad. That’s all you need to know.”
Nine words. Two simple sentences. A striking truth.
I recently had the chance to interview Polk County resident Austin Kines. He was being honored as Cedartown’s grand marshal in this year’s Christmas parade due to his service in the United States military and the fact that he had spent nearly a year as a prisoner of war in France.
As with most interviews — especially those of the sensitive kind — I let Mr. Kines do most of the talking. Of course, in the back of my mind, I silently wondered if he would bring up any of the horrible details of the time he was held prisoner. I didn’t want to hear them really — certainly not from lack of respect — but because I knew those details would be hard to listen to.
As it turns out, he didn’t speak about any of the atrocities he had endured — and that was fine with me. He summed up his whole POW experience with that simple yet complicated phrase: It was bad. That’s all you need to know.
I think those words could be used to describe the tragic events that took place in a Newtown, Conn., elementary school last week. We know it
was bad. That’s all any of us really need to know.
This brings me to an issue that surfaces on a daily — make that hourly — basis in our 24/7 information culture. It’s the problem of sensational journalism.
The day of the shooting, I had gone home for lunch. I flipped on the television and after not more than five minutes, I had turned it off.
In those few short minutes I saw videos and photographs of terrified parents and children. I heard news commentators already stating how the killer’s name would be wickedly infamous. I heard ridiculous speculations. Ridiculous attempts to turn this tragedy into a left wing-right wing talking point.
And then I saw a reporter shove a camera into the face of one of the surviving children and ask, “what are you feeling right now?”
I turned the TV off and just sat there for a second. Trying, first of all, to wrap my head around the situation, and secondly, wondering why on earth that reporter even so much as thought about approaching that child.
Why do we need to hear the frantic 911 phone calls? Don’t we already know that the caller was frightened? We don’t need to hear that to understand the scope of the tragedy.
Why do we need to hear an eye-witness describe the terrible scene inside the school? Why do we need to know those details?
Ah, but the television media moguls say: that’s what our viewers want.
No, it isn’t.
Show me someone that wants to sit in their living room and hear graphic detail on how a 6-year-old was shot to death and I’ll show you someone who needs mental help.
And this applies to any story of a tragic weight — local or national, broadcast on television news or in print. Some of the toughest stories that I have written deal with loss. As a writer, you can never tread too lightly. As an editor, you can never be too careful.
Several years ago, this newspaper ran a story about a little girl who was killed when a car backed over her. We didn’t run out and interview witnesses at the scene. We didn’t dig up the police report and list every detail of what went on that night.
There was one sentence mentioned about the accident. One sentence.
That was all that was needed. The rest of the 500 word story informed readers about the dangers of vehicle blind spots. We educated our readers about how to prevent an accident like this from happening to them.
I believe that’s what the business of journalism is about. It’s about education and the discernment of necessary details against the excessive.
The events that took place in that small town last week were horrible, reprehensible, unfathomable. The media storm that descended and the ensuing sensationalized excuse for journalism that was piped into our television sets was stomach-turning.
But there’s an easy fix for that. Turn off the TV. Sadly, there’s no easy fix for the evil that led to this tragedy.
In the next few days, the good journalism will start to show — the telling of the survivor stories, the stories of self-sacrifice, the stories that help remind us that though there is evil, there is also good.
As to the shooting itself, it was bad. That’s all we need to know.
Aimee H. Madden is editor and publisher of The Cedartown Standard and Rockmart Journal.