A sketch has now been drawn of the ten horrific years endured by the three young women in Cleveland, Ohio. The press and the public are naturally eager to fill in the outline. I was driving home when I heard NPR discuss the latest installment, a statement given by Amanda Berry’s sister.
The statement was appreciative and standard — she expressed the tremendous joy of the family on being reunited, she expressed gratitude to the supportive public and press over the years, and she requested privacy for Amanda and her family as they began the difficult work of recovery.
This was not what struck me driving home. Rather it was the response of the radio commentators: “Amanda’s sister has asked for privacy” and then almost as an afterthought or aside: “That is going to be difficult.”
Actually no — its doesn’t have to be “difficult.” But we, and the media, today are like Kipling’s Elephant’s Child, and we have an equally insatiable curiosity.
Privacy for her family would require the news media entourage to curb their hunt for the next hot headline. It would require the news teams to pack up their trucks and make a conscious choice en masse to leave the family in peace — let the family seek them when they are ready and not the other way around.
In an age of texts, tweets and a seemly endless barrage of news updates, we as a public are conditioned to want all the details of each unfolding story — and we want them instantaneously. Technology has only fueled our impatience.
Our insatiable curiosity has hurtled us into a snowballing tumble where each journalist attempts to get a tad closer to the front line or discover that slant angle into the center of the latest unfolding story.
Most recently we saw this cascade of journalistic “one-upping” during the Watertown/Cambridge lock-down a few Fridays back. I know because I was in front of the TV and the computer most of the day (like most of my neighbors). And because the subject involved places and institutions I am deeply familiar with, I was able to recognize the maelstrom of impetuous speculations, assumptions, partial-facts and complete miss-facts that got slung between news sites and news teams and laymen-internet-journalists.
The vim that journalists bring to their work should in many, and possibly most cases, be lauded. But I also believe that there a moments when conscience must override curiosity.
At the worst extreme we have the tragic case of the 13-year-old kidnapped British girl who’s phone was hacked not by police attempting to trace her whereabouts, but by the newspaper News of the World. Hacking that obstructed justice and erased evidence in the ultimate murder inquiry of the child. We saw the same dogged pursuit of the next scoop, rather than the dogged pursuit of truth, with the unfounded maligning of the missing Brown University student Sunil Tripathi, only two weeks ago. A young man who was recklessly and inaccurately tied to the Boston Marathon Bombings, before he was found in a river in Providence RI the victim of a suspected suicide.
It is a fine line journalists walk. In many cases I fully support rigorous and persistent journalism. It is the kind of relentless journalism that brought down President Nixon through the Washington Post’s sleuthing on the Watergate Scandal. The kind of journalism that has exposed political corruption, discriminatory red-lining by mortgage lenders, dangerous consumer products and war crimes. It is the kind of journalism that helps to ensure a certain level of transparency in our nation’s government and our institutions (corporate and academic included.)
But it is important to recognize that in some cases there should be boundaries. Let us not lose sight of common decency in the harried scramble for stories. It is important to remember that private persons thrown into the limelight might not be there out of their own volition, they are not celebrities who make the active choice to have their lives recorded in ink, and they should not be treated as such.
The public is not blameless. We have become conditioned by tabloid impropriety to expect the same careless disregard for respectful privacy in all facets of the news. Our own insatiable curiosity is a large driving force.
Let us hope that in this case we the public and the news entities can reign-in our Kipling-like curiosity and allow the families of Amanda Berry and the two other Cleveland women to begin the difficult process of recovery in peace and in privacy.