Responsible journalism should include knowing what not to tell the public. So many of our problems seem to stem from society knowing far more than it needs to about the wrong things. Information spreads like a virus, bad ideas can easily infect bad people's minds. The grand media pontification and fear reportage that follows isolated horrors begets other horrors in distant locations. The worldwide commiserating about a mass school shooting by disenfranchised youth lets other disenfranchised youth know what additional options they have for their futures. I've heard people invoke George Santayana's famous, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." But that is no defense, it is the very broadcast of the information which invites the repetition. If there was no Columbine there may have been no Virginia Tech shooting. If terrorists (and those who support them) did not see their acts so clearly successful in creating the terror they wanted, they would be disinclined to repeat their tactics. The press gives these murderers what they want, notoriety and a grand platform. But it's not just about murderers, it's about all manner of things. To combat teenage drug use news articles spread the word about synthetic drugs, just this week I've learned more than I ever wanted to know about just how easy it is to buy and use legal synthetic drugs (brands, costs, type of high created, usage, and side effects), all wrapped up in an article decrying the problem. But the article is not part of the solution. Which is more likely, that the article will stop the problem or that it will embolden another kid or adult willing to experiment, since now they know where to buy it and that it's legal? Lawmakers are already working on legislation to ban these legal drugs, this article won't help that cause. But capping it all off for me this week was an article in the New York Times which gave helpful tips for getting away with murder and other heinous crimes. The suspect in the Long Island serial killer case is getting away with it because, according to the article, he has followed these rules:
- Use disposable cell phones
- Keep calls under three minutes
- Make calls from densely populated areas so no police wouldn't be able to easily identity you on security camera footage once they determine your cell phone location.
- Target women advertising their services on Craigslist
I truly hope no one is listening, to them or to me. What is the value of reporting these details except to titillate a public hungry for news of the macabre? It won't help the police find the killer, and it merely informs others that the police have no defense against these techniques. But, I suppose if they can do it with their 876k daily readers, I can rebroadcast it to prove a point with my 50 daily readers.
I am not arguing for censorship, but instead for sensibility. Every day editors and writers make decisions about what matters to readers. And every day to sell more papers these editors and writers choose which information to include and how to emotionally connect it to their readers. Many of their decisions are bad for us all.