When the Press Must Cover Private Pain

When the Press Must Cover Private Pain
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Writing in the Washington Post, Terrell Starr, a journalist, took issue with the prevailing view that protesting students at the University of Missouri were wrong to prevent a student reporter from photographing their activities, and right to demand that journalists give them privacy in a public space.

The media’s failure “to cover black pain fairly,” Starr argues, imposes a moral obligation on the press to allow African-Americans “a safe space . . . where their blackness could not be violated,” even when, as was the case here, the students were engaged in political activity intended to affect the operation of a taxpayer-funded institution.  

Imagine the implications for journalism, for history, for humanity were Mr. Starr’s point of view applied to crime reporting or war reporting, to covering riots or the plight of refugees or the committing of atrocities. People are in pain every day, everywhere in this world, and reporters are there to witness and report it. They should be. They must be.

“In most circumstances,” Starr wrote, “when covering people who are in pain, journalists offer extra space and empathy.”

A father cradles the remains of his infant son killed in a terrorist bombing. A mother in the throes of wild grief throws herself on her murdered child’s coffin. A family in a war zone cowers in fear or bristles with anger or runs for their lives. We see their faces in newspapers and on TV screens. Reporters bring them to us, sometimes at the risk of their own lives. Often the subjects don’t want them there, and surely a reporter, like any decent human being, ought to be respectful of the suffering he or she witnesses. But that shouldn’t prevent them from reporting it.

A couple years ago, I lost a close friend in a car accident. He was a great guy, killed in the prime of life, much loved and terribly missed. The accident had involved a safety issue of public interest that attracted the attention of the press. As friends and family gathered at my friend’s home to mourn, I took responsibility for answering calls from reporters. I told each one that the family didn’t have a comment. Some tried again the next day.

Reporters were waiting outside the church where his funeral was held. They tried to be tactful, but they were intruding in a space where a lot people were suffering a lot of pain. A few of the mourners resented it. But most, including his immediate family, accepted the intrusion graciously. They might have wished the reporters had covered other stories that day, but they didn’t argue they had no business being there. They understood the requirements of good journalism and good manners aren’t always compatible.  

Tim Tai, the young photographer in question, certainly appeared respectful as he politely though insistently tried to do his job. He calmly observed that the First Amendment gave both protesters and reporters the right to occupy that space. But even had he been abrupt or rude, he was entitled to take his photographs.

The Mizzou students weren’t having a private discussion in their dorm rooms. They were staging a public protest on public property. The public had a right to know about it. They had a right to see it, and the press had an obligation to report it. The protesters were demanding the resignation of university officials and insisting on policy changes at an important public institution. In a free society, it’s unreasonable to insist on making public demands from a private sanctuary.

The protesters might be in pain caused by their mistreatment and alienation in American society. They might deserve our sympathy and support. But they do not deserve our ignorance. They are not entitled to have their public actions spared public scrutiny. Their protest, their motives, their politics, their future intentions are all a matter of public interest.

New York Times columnist Nick Kristoff, an avowed liberal, wrote after the incident that intolerance of opposing views “is disproportionately an instinct on the left.” He’s right.

Some conservatives select the kinds of news they wish to receive, preferring media outlets that echo their opinions. They mock and revile contrary opinions, but they don’t typically forbid their utterance in their presence, as was the case recently at Mizzou and Yale and other universities.

The growing intolerance of the left deserves more media attention than it has received, and hopefully the incident in Carnahan Quadrangle will occasion greater criticism. Various follies of less or equal perniciousness associated with conservatives receive plenty of critical scrutiny in the press. Certainly the idea that people ought to be restrained from sharing their opinions on public matters or that reporters ought to self-censor out of sympathy for their subjects deserves repudiation by a free press.

And any reporter who doesn’t agree with that should probably find another line of work.


Mark Salter is the former chief of staff to Sen. John McCain and was a senior adviser to the McCain for President campaign.

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