Southern Style: Downplay Perpetrators and Their Ideas

President Obama did well to speak in detail about the good lives of the people who were present that day at the Safeway in Tucson.
Southern Style: Downplay Perpetrators and Their Ideas
Mary Silver

[xtypo_dropcap]I[/xtypo_dropcap]t’s almost a week since the killings in Arizona. Witnessing and reporting on violence challenges journalists in particular ways. For these stories, more than usual, we have to hold to our professional ethics and our compassion in spite of time pressure, and sometimes in spite of peer pressure.

As the story began, my wise editor directed me to the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. She also spoke about her experiences covering Hurricane Katrina and the Virginia Tech shootings.

Both she and the Dart Center resources taught me a lot.

The national conversation displayed some excesses. Of course people want to know why anyone does a horrific thing. But leaping to a conclusion or to a diagnosis does not make sense. It may take years, or it may never be possible to untangle the shooter’s motivations.

And there must be a way to hold off from bombarding the public with the images and words of alleged killers. Maybe we should put them in an obscure corner of our papers and websites, so people can find out if they want to find out, then put it aside?

Does a pitiable, leering mug shot have to run at full size at the top of a website for days and days? The person in the mug shot has both victims and relatives who must be pained to see it. Better to downplay the image.

After the Virginia Tech shootings, some relatives of victims asked the broadcast media to stop playing the perpetrator’s hate-filled words and showing his video.

Once toxic stuff like that goes into your consciousness, you cannot get it out again.

So I want to minimize the faces and the ideas of those who do horrible acts. I no longer remember which newspaper it was that printed the pictures of all the people killed in the bombing in Oklahoma City but refused to print a picture of the bombers. That was a good choice.

President Obama did well to speak in detail about the good lives of the people who were present that day at the Safeway in Tucson, Arizona. He spoke of their courage and kindness.

“These men and women remind us that heroism is found not only on the fields of battle. They remind us that heroism does not require special training or physical strength. Heroism is here, all around us, in the hearts of so many of our fellow citizens, just waiting to be summoned—as it was on Saturday morning,” Obama said at the memorial service on Jan. 12.

That is true. It is also true that someone was willing to attack those altruistic, brave people. Comedian John Stewart said, “Crazy always wins”; then he seemed shocked at the darkness in the sentiment.

It is not possible to defend against some evils—I think that is what he meant. Because we wish we could prevent cruelty, we examine the psyches of killers and blame each other for not stopping them.

Improving the mental heath system, reducing access to guns, and removing violent metaphors from political discourse are all worth doing. But they are not really the first thing to think of.

“We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another is entirely up to us. I believe that for all our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness, and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us,” Obama said.

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Mary Silver writes columns, grows herbs, hikes, and admires the sky. She likes critters, and thinks the best part of being a journalist is learning new stuff all the time. She has a Masters from Emory University, serves on the board of the Georgia chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and belongs to the Association of Health Care Journalists.