A few weeks ago, something tragic happened to a family living about a half-mile down my street. I don’t know them, and I’m not going to include the details here. In the end though, the part that horrified me most was the press reaction to the incident.
I don’t watch news often. I learned about the episode on my street when my phone rang one morning and a family-member living in a neighboring state informed me what had occurred at the the other end of the stone-lined road. The event was hot news because it occurred in our “affluent” community. That afternoon on my way back from work, I paused as I always do, at a stop-sign around the corner from the house in question. Looking to the right, I gasped. Satellite trucks from every local TV station as well as FOX TV lined the road across from the scene.
I watched the news that evening, and reading between sensationalized headlines, it was pretty clear what occurred the night before was a dreadful accident. But every story began with incendiary and leading statements that would lead a viewer to perceive otherwise. The press dredged up peripheral facts, how much those involved paid for their house, their past business relationships, details that had no bearing on what had happened the night before, and featured them prominently—anything to pique the interested of the consumer, I suppose.
Thankfully, the story had no legs. Local people who knew the folks involved, understood a bigger picture, and the thing dropped—from the public eye anyway. But not before the poor family had to stage a clandestine getaway to a relative’s house far from our “comfortable community.” And not before I bumped into someone I hadn’t seen in a long time who, because she knew I lived on the same street, commented on all the trumped-up details and then tried to pump me for more.
I hadn’t thought about that situation for a few weeks, until yesterday. I’m about a quarter of the way through The Pilot’s Wife by Anita Shreve, a novel I pick up every few years to re-read, because Shreve’s writing amazes me. If you are unfamiliar with the story, it begins with the news of a terrible accident and unfolds from there. I just finished reading the part where the main character has to beat her way through a crowd of reporters to get into her house, and the scene reminded me of what happened to our neighbors.
Before last month, any exposure I’d had to an insatiable press occurred via TV, the movies or books. But this was different. This lead story indicted an ordinary family by detonating a perception of wrongdoing over the air, with zero respect for the outcome of the case. The “stars” of this debacle weren’t celebrities, or even public figures. They were regular folks, like you and me. But because of their zip code, the awful, painful and unplanned circumstances in which they found themselves became fodder for “Live from the Scene,” and “Story at Six.”
It frightens me to think that news stations are evaluated by ratings. Advertisers choose their spots based on this system and so, to attract market share, objectivity is lost. I’m aware this point isn’t news to most people. But seeing how it impacted average lives, brought it all a bit too, well, close to home.
The reminder of this real world situation, which percolated back to me through Shreves' exceptional writing, made me realize that unless you are an eye witness, there is no such thing as knowing what really happened. There’s only the spin put on the “facts,” and the misinformation and gossip that ensues.
The thought made me want to lock my doors and get down on my knees and pray that nothing “newsworthy” EVER happens to folks I know and love.
May your weekend be wonderful and "news" free.