Cooling off after tragedy

A few days ago, people were suggesting to me that the media has been less than responsible when it comes to coverage of tragedies, because footage of victims and family members have been everywhere. Of course, the public wants to know what is going on, but placing the fear and misery of those closest to the situation truly is nothing more than tragedy porn.

The observation was made that these people should be given some time to process the horrible tragedies they are facing before having a microphone shoved in their faces, and that is absolutely true. If I am absolutely honest with myself, I put off writing on the concept of giving those people time to at least compose their thoughts and feelings for public consumption because I needed time to think about how to put the thoughts about a cooling off period together at least somewhat coherently.

Many people in the media business refer to the process of gathering news and reporting as “feeding the beast,” and when it comes to the coverage of tragedies, it definitely is just that. Unfortunately, the beast they are feeding at that point is one of the darkest parts of human nature. People are curious about the pain of others, whether we want to admit it or not. When it comes to violence in the news, seeing the statements of people who are closest to the crime feeds that inner-beast.

If it was just a matter of feeding a dark need for violence “porn,” perhaps it wouldn’t be very bad. Unfortunately, it typically goes far beyond that, as the heart-wrenching comments of survivors and families of victims become fodder for debate over how we run our society. While it should be obvious to anyone with common sense that it is not wise to take the advice of someone who is emotionally distraught on matters that would be far-reaching and long-standing in our society, that’s exactly what many people do.

Of course someone who has just lost a family member in a shooting is going to probably say something about wanting to see fewer or no guns in our society anymore. That statement is a highly emotional response to loss, and typically is recorded by the media before anyone has even a day to process the events that have occurred. Then many people, including our leaders, start nodding in agreement, without taking into account that these requests were being made by people who are not in a mental state to deal with the situation in front of them rationally.

While it’s unlikely that we will ever be able to stop the media from serving up violence “porn,” we certainly can learn to place those statements from victims and their families in proper perspective. Yes, we certainly should show empathy, and we shouldn’t suggest that these people are not entitled to have time to process their grief and other feelings. If they choose to speak to the media, their statements shouldn’t be used as fuel in the fires of debate, and definitely shouldn’t be used to guide public policy or the law. The bottom line remains that until they have time to process what they are dealing with emotionally, it must be assumed that their comments are at least a little irrational. There is nothing wrong with that, and it is to be expected. Being irrational simply means that one is allowing his or her thought processes to be ruled by emotions more than by logic and facts.

No matter how much anyone might suggest otherwise, our legal system needs to be ruled by facts, not emotions. Also, as a society, we need to learn that some things in this world simply cannot be prevented, no matter how much we may wish it otherwise. Every tragedy we face is not a call to action. While it might be tempting to think we really must “do something,” the real thing we should be doing is just being there for the people who need us the most – the victims and their families. In the end, it is impossible to legislate safety. At least we can work on finding more empathy within ourselves.

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