Q: A family in our community was murdered, and the media has been swarming. Most of their close friends, including us, have refused to comment, so the stories coming out have many errors that are driving me crazy. Should I talk with them and set the record straight?
I’m so sorry your grief is complicated in this way. It’s a dynamic I know all too well. A lot of the work I’ve done has been in the media’s eye, in the publicity whirl immediately after a traumatic event.
For example, I deployed to Sandy Hook weeks after the school shooting happened, and it was total media overload. The entire country was there, every major network, every major reporter, every newspaper syndicate. There were cameras and helicopters everywhere, all thrust on this small town.
There were three groups of victims among the families. The first group became fierce advocates, strong voices of the community who spoke for everyone and set the tone. The second group sunk down quietly, not wanting to have anything to do with the media coverage. The third group simply fled – sold everything and moved.
This “fight, flight or freeze” reaction was amazing to witness. Those are all powerfully ingrained survival techniques.
So, your impulse to fight against the inaccuracies of reporting is instinctive. The intent is to seek justice, but the reality is that only gives the media more to work with. It drags the story out, and you become part of the content. So, your desire to correct the record is noble, but it could instead just make the story more sensationalistic.
Here’s what you should remember: The media has a totally different agenda than you do. Think about the goal of nightly news – to drive viewership, to provoke engagement via fear, happiness, or excitement. News media is also eager to inform, so you often see information shared too soon.
Reporters sometimes have minimal tact and emotional consideration, because when there is a gruesome tragedy, their viewers want details. Sensationalizing those details is part of the story, especially when that story has to do with drugs, sex or murder. Those are captivating topics for our culture.
Reporters move quickly to get a story before anyone else, and they may not take time to check facts carefully.
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For example, I remember a motorcycle accident involving someone I knew. The motorcyclist was dragged 100 yards under a truck. They said that on the news, and I was like, was that necessary? Was that detail of being dragged 100 yards necessary? It’s like a Dean Koontz novel. It was only there to add “color.”
As someone close to the victims, you have a different perspective. What’s important to you isn’t how she died, it’s that you lost a beloved friend and her name was Maggie, not Margaret.
You can correct that record privately, one person at a time, with those who ask for more detail or misquote the facts. And I think your instinct to seek justice can be better channeled into supporting your community that is hurting. Help the victims by being there for them in these tough moments.
Leave the media to those advocates who feel overwhelmingly compelled to speak on behalf of the victims. For example, at Sandy Hook there were parents who stepped forward to be the voice of the group, and that was how they processed the trauma. Other parents felt their authenticity and emotion, and chose these speakers to represent the whole group. It’s an organic thing, when those closest to the event either select or accept a spokesperson.
Ultimately, you as an individual aren’t going to make the entire media industry accountable or not. You aren’t responsible for the media. You want to help, but this is too big for one interview to correct the issue.
And this is exactly why I’ve always been a little reserved about sharing my experiences in trauma recovery. It’s really hard to see someone’s face in tears and then go talk about it with the media. As you recognize, it’s just too personal.