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invasion after invasion
when the news goes too far, and why
by jael mchenry (@JaelMcHenry)

With a few details changed, it could have been an episode of “CSI.” Actually, I think it was once an episode of “CSI”, I think I saw it. Home invasion, fear and terror, suspects apprehended at gunpoint while fleeing the scene. A woman and her two daughters dead. The only surviving occupant of the home, the father, badly beaten.

Unfortunately, this one wasn’t fictional.

I rarely watch television news of any stripe, but this time, I was in a hotel room doing my ironing, so I didn’t flip the channel. I should have. Because while I was flattening out my shirt collar and taking the wrinkles out of my skirt, I heard the reporter describing a terrible scene, a play-by-play recounting of this terrible event, what they thought the mother went through when she was taken to the bank as a hostage, what they thought the suspects had done to the daughters before they were finally killed.

Who wants to know these things?

That’s my single question after seeing the news coverage. Not why it happened to this particular family, because that doesn’t matter. Either it was random or it wasn’t, and either way no one is ever completely safe but it doesn’t help any of us much to lay awake at night worrying about it. Not whether the guilty will be punished, as they surely will be, not that it makes a difference. And not who the suspects were and how they met each other, because the news told me that, and showed me their pictures several times and read me their rap sheets, and gave me fodder for many upcoming nightmares.

Bad things happen every day. Terrible things. And it’s the job of the news to tell us about them. A teenager goes on trial for shooting the principal of his school. People disappear and don’t show up again breathing. A bridge collapses in Minneapolis, the aftermath of which is still unfolding as I write this. Bad things happen. Yes.

But why do we need to know so much about them?

It’s not that I think the news should be censored, because that would be ridiculous. Puppies and rainbows, film at 11 is not what I’m advocating for. We wouldn’t have the media if we didn’t need them. The press is a free press, as it should be.

I just wish that there weren’t television reporters breathlessly recounting real and imaginary details of a family’s last hours alive, because I feel like that’s another invasion on top of the one that family has already suffered. I’ve left the details out of this article on purpose; if you want them, they’re easy to find. The names of the victims, the crimes committed by the suspects, the anguish of the community. They matter, but they don’t matter. We don’t need to know what high school the oldest daughter graduated from to know the scope of the tragedy. We just don’t.

And why the media gives these details to us, I can’t answer. Some would say we get the media we deserve. I don’t know if that’s the case. Ratings don’t account for all the sins; ratings are not a snapshot but an analysis of trends, and if I say I’ll never watch Fox News again because of their coverage of this crime, nobody cares. Whether or not I, personally, think the news goes too far is irrelevant. We get the media we deserve and want, but only in the sense that we self-select; I get the news I want from the online versions of a couple major newspapers, and so I get “my” media personally packaged. But if thousands of people were to get het up about invasive and disturbingly detailed coverage of crimes, would that even help? I doubt it. The thousands hating it are overcome by the millions tuning in.

My concern and my fear is that because we see increasingly gruesome criminal activities in our fictional media, news outlets feel not just permitted but compelled to match them with increasingly gruesome descriptions of criminal activities that actually happened. The line is so far out you can’t see it from here. No, I don’t think the suspects who perpetrated this crime saw it happen on “CSI” and thought it would be cool to try it out. I don’t think the link between television violence and real violence is that clear-cut. But I think it would be disingenuous to think that there’s no link at all, that fictional patterns of crime and real patterns of crime are unrelated. And I think real patterns of crime that are covered relentlessly in the media are more likely to show up, perpetrated in different places by different people, again and again.

The most respectful thing I can do for the three people who died in that home invasion, may they rest in peace, is to repeat a quote from one of their neighbors, and make a suggestion.

"It’s just insane," [she] said. "I can’t even describe it."

Shouldn’t we, can’t we, leave it at that?


Jael is tired of being stereotyped as just another novelist/poet/former English teacher/tour guide/"Jeopardy!" semifinalist/bellydancing editor-in-chief with an MFA who was once an overachieving oboe-playing alto newspaper editor valedictorian from Iowa. She was also captain of the football cheerleading squad. Follow me on Twitter: @jaelmchenry

more about jael mchenry


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topic: news
published: 4.4.03

a week in the courthouse
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by jael mchenry
topic: news
published: 5.3.06


tracey kelley
8.3.07 @ 11:06a

From your keyboard to every news agency.

It's hard to understand why the bad news matters. To explain away human foibles? To help us understand evil and avoid it?

There's no denying that I talked about the bridge incident, shook my head, clucked my tongue, whispered peace, and discussed how surreal it must have been.

But I'd like to move on today. That will involve not picking up a paper, watching the news, etc. because there will still be a whole 'lotta coverage.

joe procopio
8.3.07 @ 3:03p

Hear - freaking - hear!

The length of coverage, the depth of coverage, the breadth of coverage - you hit it right on the head.

I blame OJ.

Magnificent column.

lisa r
8.3.07 @ 11:41p

Amen. Joe, I blame the OJ trial, too--but I also blame the 24-hour a day news cycle. Back when news shows were half an hour long 3 times a day the news people were a lot more succinct and stuck to the important details instead of focusing and embellishing on the lurid details that no one really needs to know.

I forever am saying that with rights come responsibilities. The press wants the right to a free press without having to exercise the responsibilities that go along with that right.

robert melos
8.4.07 @ 7:01a

I'm a news junkie. I watch CNN, MSNBC, even FoxNews on occasion. I do want to have every little detail. Now this isn't to say I care what Paris Hilton or Britney Spears do on every given moment of any given day, but I do want as much as I can get about things like home invasions, bridges collapsing, floods, shootings. If Ms. Hilton or Ms. Spears happens to either cause or parish in one of those disaster type events I won't turn it off, just pop a champagne cork in celebration and mourn the real dead afterward.

ken mohnkern
8.4.07 @ 9:49a

I don't blame OJ. I blame Bush (for everything really, but especially for this).

My pet conspiracy theory is that the news is just feeding a heightened sense of fear that was established by the White House and the Dept of Homeland Security.

The news tells us to fear the terrorists, the carjackers, the drug dealers, the Mexicans, our kids' toys, our food, the loner guy next door. Hell, even the weather is predicted these days by "Storm Team 11" from the "Severe Weather Center."

Were we this afraid ten years ago?

robert melos
8.4.07 @ 11:28p

I don't think our fears have been escalated. I think our fears have always been in accord with our times. In the 50s we supposedly taught fear in schools. Schools had air raid drills and taught children to duck under their desks in the case of an atomic bomb drop, school desks being known for their protective properties.

In the 60s the enemy was anti-war sentiment, the cold war, etc.. The 70s were the same.

I think each decade had its own fears, but no more than any other decade. We fear, as a race, anything that stands out as unusual. A home invasion, one of such horrible magnitude touches everyone across the country because if it can happen to one family it could happen to anyone. We, the curious types, what to know every detail because deep down we like sensationalism and because it could've happened or could happen to anyone. We like to know what horror could befall us.

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