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Victims to Journalists: Keep Out

From the files of "nifty in theory" media criticism – and I've had to toss a lot of my ideas in the very same file – comes today's suggestion from Washington and Lee journalism professor Edward Wasserman.

In the wake of media frenzies in Blacksburg, Virginia and Minneapolis, Minnesota and covering grief-stricken disaster victims, Wasserman has two words for the news media: Keep Out.

Wasserman's critique of over-the-top media Tragedy TV starts out:

In the age of round-the-clock news, misery gets plenty of company. A bad event, if it's bad enough, unleashes a flood of reporters, producers, camera crews, satellite trucks and all the techie plumage that accessorizes the media-industrial complex.

Whether a mine cave-in, mudslide, bridge collapse or school shooting, the media swarm around disaster sites has become such a routine of contemporary Americana that rarely do you hear anybody ask whether, on balance, it's a good thing.

Wasserman then heads into suggestions about restricting media from family and community members because …
What if this is bad for them? Suppose the cameras and questions, the act of providing raw accounts of harrowing events whose full import they haven't begun to fathom, actually harms them -- and slows their recovery from trauma.

Moreover, suppose the media mob thwarts their community's overall response by preventing survivors from gathering privately to grieve and make sense of what has befallen them.

This sounds common sense-ish enough to most outside observers – and likely many in the media as well – because nobody wants to make things worse for these people. But reading the piece, I came away with one rather large question: You might keep out (cue the threatening music) The Media, but what about when the community members themselves play journalist – whether through blogs or so-called citizen reporting? I still remember the Virginia Tech student who became a special correspondent immediately, simply because of the footage and access he possessed.

So I decided to give Professor Wasserman a call and (basically) ask: Your intentions are good, but do you really think that barring or restricting media access is realistic with cell phone cameras and bloggers and every cable network encouraging submissions from citizen journalists?

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Wasserman's initial response? "That's a great question. I wish my editor would have asked me that."

(Okay, a tad gratuitous and self-satisfied there.)

And his second response? "Yes, it sounds at first blush like I'm suggesting the further monopolization of information in an age where access to all information is getting opened up.

"But my intention is to limit the harm to traumatized survivors of disasters, it's not to limit the flow of important info. [Citizen journalists and bloggers] are uniquely positioned to be sensitive to the needs and vulnerabilities of their friends and classmates and neighbors, and are therefore less likely to ask the intrusive and painful questions that cause them the greatest harm."

I'd like to think that Wasserman is right. I'd like to think empathy would be a solid journalistic guide for a resident or for a that a Virginia Tech student/Katrina survivor would have had the presence of mind to not mimic the "How did it feel?" and "What was going through your mind?" intrusiveness of the cable interrogators. But in an age of "American Idol" and Chris Crocker -- where Andy Warhol's 15 minutes of fame are being auctioned off to the most outrageous and/or abrasive souls out there –- I can't be sure about that.