Is Media Coverage Making the Baltimore Riots Worse?

A photo of a car on fire in the Baltimore riots
In an effort to report the news, media outlets can become part of the story. Photo © Andrew Burton / Getty Images

It's the job of a TV news reporter to want to go where the action is. In the case of the April 2015 riots in Baltimore, Maryland, the scene was dangerous and unstable. While that wouldn't stop any news crew from covering this breaking news, all of the live TV broadcasts may be making the situation worse.

The Problem with This Type of Breaking News

You can't expect a TV station or broadcast network to ignore the violence that happened in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray, a black man who died under mysterious circumstances while in police custody.

But in the rush to get video on the air, many journalists resorted to easy coverage.

That easy coverage was showing the violence in the streets. Sure, that makes for compelling imagery, but there's something missing. That is the context behind the action of the crowds. Without it, news anchors are left doing play-by-play, as in "Let's see what happens next!"

That shallowness is one reason critics are sometimes correct in saying the media coverage doesn't help ease the tension. That's especially true when there is an overabundance of wide-shot aerials, like from a helicopter, that does little to personalize what is taking place on the ground.

Too Much Wall-to-Wall Coverage

Most reporters would say their job isn't to solve the problem, but simply to show what is taking place. The media didn't incite the unrest that would have taken place anyway.

That may be true, but pointing cameras at it 24/7 just encourages the violence to continue, putting lives at risk.

Reporters should feel a sense of responsibility to their community in not endangering human life, even if some of those people are breaking the law.

Often, the argument that the chaos makes for great TV is enough to keep the cameras rolling. So is the competitive pressure that a station might see its Nielsen ratings drop if it scaled back its coverage.

Even when the video isn't live, the images are replayed over and over again.

No Easy Solutions to the Smotherage

"Smotherage" is a term that some use when the news media, from local stations to the cable networks, latch on to a story and won't let go. Sometimes, there's nothing to add to the narrative other than "the unrest continues" for day 2, or week 2.

It's a real fear in many news departments that might truly desire to move on that some huge development will happen and they will miss out. That's enough of a concern to keep sending crews out to say the same thing, with little thought given toward advancing the story.

It's no wonder that many people are bored with TV news. The key is to dig for information and not just showcase the pictures. After all, anyone with a cell phone camera can record video. What should separate news professionals is the ability to calmly, accurately and compassionately find out the facts behind the scenes and to describe the emotions that are driving these people.

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