My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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Dear Media, Back The F*** Off Newtown

In late May – or maybe early June – of 1999, I ended up at a rave in a field on the outskirts of Denver. I was driving cross-country and I wasn’t thinking about our geography. Like many raves at the time, it was a mix of folks ages 16-30. I set up my tent and was sitting in it writing in my journal when some teens asked me if they could come in. They were trying to light their cigarettes and it was too windy and they didn’t have a tent. I invited them in and we got to talking. I asked where they were from and they looked down. “Littleton,” they said. “Is that near here?” I asked, ignoring the warning signs that I was putting my foot in my mouth as their eyes got big with surprise. And then it dawned on me. Columbine. Sure enough, this group of teens were all from Columbine and they were all there when their classmates were savagely killed. I decided not to ask them about the day itself, but asked how it’s been since. What I heard was heartbreaking. They had dropped out of school because the insanity from the press proved to be too much to deal with. They talked about not being able to answer the phone – which would ring all day and night – because the press always wanted to talk. They talked about being hounded by press wherever they went. All they wanted was to be let alone. So they dropped out of school which they said was fine because it was so close to the end of the year and everything was chaos and no one noticed.

Everything about what happened in Newtown is horrible. And as the public processes it, I understand the need to talk about the issues. Mental health. Gun control. Violence in society. Turning killers into celebrities. Disenfranchisement of youth. There are a lot of topics that need to be seriously discussed and, for better or worse, there’s nothing like a crisis to propel those issues into the public consciousness.

But please, please, please… can we leave the poor people of Newtown alone? Can we not shove microphones into the faces of distraught children? Can we stop hovering like buzzards waiting for the fresh meat of gossipy details? Can we let the parents of the deceased choose when and where they want to engage with the public to tell their story? Can we let the community have some dignity in their grief rather than turning them and their lives into a spectacle of mourning?

Yes, the media are the ones engaging in these practices. But the reason that they’re doing so is because we – the public – are gawking at the public displays of pain. Our collective fascination with tragedy means that we encourage media practices that rub salt into people’s wounds, all for the most salacious story. And worse, our social media practices mean that the media creators are tracking the kinds of stories that are forwarded. And my hunch is that people are forwarding precisely those salacious stories, even if to critique the practices (such as the interviews of children).

How can we step back and demand dignity in reporting on tragedy? And how do we not play into this ugly dynamic as a public? How do we let grieving peoples choose when and how to tell their stories? I don’t have answers, but all I can think about are those kids in Littleton whose lives were shattered by the deaths of their classmates only to be further harmed by reporters intent on getting a scoop. Let’s not ruin any more lives than have already been destroyed. We need a media whose mantra is to do no additional harm.

Update: I believe that journalists should create opportunities for people who want to tell their stories to share, but there’s a huge difference between creating opportunities and hounding people. Just because people are coming out into their community to mourn doesn’t mean that they want their image blasted onto national TV. And just because people are physically in a public space doesn’t mean that they’re public figures. Let people have an opportunity to speak, but let them mourn without being pressured to do so if that’s what they need.

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21 comments to Dear Media, Back The F*** Off Newtown

  • mt

    Thank you for this. I live about 20 minutes outside of Newtown. The whole Greater Danbury area is really one big community – I never realized the whole “everyone knows someone who knows someone” thing was true until these terrible past few days – it’s true. Not a single person I know who lives around here doesn’t know someone who was directly effected by this. Yes, I’m tired of hearing about the gunman, yes I’m tired of hearing about the guns and his hypothetical mental health issues, yes I’m tired of the weird pleasure the news outlets seem to be getting out of replaying the same heart-wrenching clips of traumatized kids and heartbroken parents over and over again. But I think what I am most tired of, even above all of that, is turning on the news and seeing people I know, people I recognize, people I see on a regular basis in the backgrounds of interviews, in the pictures taken inside churches and gatherings. I’m really tired of having the community I grew up in and love be unable to grieve, cope, and get our lives back together in peace. Thank you for acknowledging that the community as a whole is hurt by the intense media presence too.

  • -a-

    “We need a media whose mantra is to do no additional harm.” Thank you, Good guidance for anyone, but especially our “News”/Entertainment media

  • Josh S

    Wouldn’t it be great if, following a tragedy like this, the city/authorities created a specific place (complete with platform & podium) where those who wished to engage the media. If a friend-of-a-student-who-was-in-the-next-classroom wants to share their information and answer questions and/or give interviews, they can go there to share their information. Or put their contact information as a person who wants to receive media calls.

    Otherwise, leave them the heck alone.

    Though, with freedom of the press, I doubt this could happen (or that it would even be a good idea to restrict the press in this fashion, because of the ‘creep’ that could happen into other areas like politics, police work, etc with such restrictions…)

  • Cheri

    8 1/2 years ago, a coworker of mine was murdered by her husband in the parking lot of the public library where we both worked. Her son was an aide in my department. The library closed for the rest of the day & stayed closed until mid-afternoon of the following day. While our public relations director is normally a sensible, kind person, she unaccountably allowed a television reporter, accompanied by a camera person, to come into the closed library & film some of us attempting to work. He wasn’t allowed to talk to us, but looking back, that didn’t really matter. Nothing was gained by filming us in the library at all except for “hey, HERE’S the inside of the library where (insert name of coworker) worked!”.

  • My brother-in-law’s brother was one of the four people killed in the Medford pharmacy shooting last Father’s Day. His murder was an unspeakable shock on top of an already fragile situation. For the first 48 hours, the family did not want to speak to anyone, and made that very clear to each of the dozen or more news organizations covering the story. This did not forestall scores of phone calls and knocks on the door from each of the media companies, all throughout those two days. They had to turn off the house phone at a time when it was sorely needed to get in touch with family and friends and the police. Turning off the phone resulted in increasingly aggressive approaches to the front door, and reporters peering in windows. One reporter who came to the door claimed to be a neighbor who just wanted to know if there was anything she could do. The media’s behavior was cruel and inhumane and greatly added to the stress level on the worst day everyone in this family had ever endured.

  • Perhaps we need a “journalists do not call” list.

  • when the media of today takes a moment to put down their cameras and sit for a moment and still themselves, they will continue running on the gerbil wheel of adrenaline junkiedom – perpetually chasing the next big story in an effort to win prizes and awards…the might become humanized and not question if they are sure their mothers love them. that day, they might actually put down the camera and become part of the story in helping others, than standing back to simply report it.

    until then, social media just acts as a giant amplifier, as people have to power to retweet or send the sound byte media message all over the planet and mind numbing speeds where story depth is getting shallower by the day and the makeup, hairspray and imagery is getting thicker

  • Very good response, Dana. I’ve never felt better about my decision not to watch TV news. I teach after-school classes in elementary schools and I now have to think about evacuation procedures and make sure I have a phone number for every single kid on my class list. Never had to do that before.

  • Michael

    You could not have said it better. It’s a shame that tragedies like this occur. It’s more a shame that only AFTER tragedies like this that we take notice …albiet for only a little while until the next one. In the meantime, the best we can do is let people heal within their own community, not one imposed on them by the entire country – or world for that matter.

  • kate

    turn off your tv (i did 15 or so years ago and haven’t missed it in the least), do not read the paper, do not open any websites where that is featured and be the change…withdraw your energy of the matrix and if nothing else, you will feel so much better…i engaged in just a bit of the story on friday eve and had nighmares and felt sick all weekend…only to get to work today (i am a teacher) with a fresh mission as i try to have everyday; trying to positively influence kids and myself to do the right thing…om and thanks for sharing

  • Theresa

    CBC, as well as all those other media outlets swarming this town, would be well served to listen to Danah Boyd’s comments. When CBC asked what the media could do differently on yesterday’s program I almost yelled out loud that CBC should get out of Newtown and leave the members of that community to grieve. Then I got out of bed and turned off my radio. I can’t imagine going through this kind of personal tragedy and not being able to walk down the street without seeing the media turning my pain into entertainment. That isn’t news.

  • Elizabeth

    I 100% agree. I felt vaguely nauseated over the weekend and avoided all the news. I couldn’t put a finger on why, but I think this was the reason. Events like this are truly horrific, but I am increasingly uncomfortable with how it interacts with our news cycle. I am glad some outlets have turned to the more important policy issues (not that the debate will always be sensible…)

  • Wish I could agree but while the process is messy and there are some who do this job with more finesse than others, the job of reporting the news has never been pretty. Having said that I’d suggest that rather than project our own fears and pain on the media it might be better aimed at the American fascination with firearms.

  • Carl

    I think one of the things that bothered me the most was some guy on CNN using a satellite photo of the school and some software to diagram the attack. It was like he was discussing a science project or a strategy game and this was Friday night while the bodies of the children were still inside. That was when I decided to turn off the TV. There was so much false information given out the first 12-24 hours it was rediculous. The national media has lost all sense of ethics and accountability just to be able to use terms like “exclusive” and “heard it here first”.

  • Derek

    While I agree with you to a point, I feel that the media is needed in the worst way in this instance. The utterly horrible nature of this particular attack NEEDS to be shoved in the face of everyone. I have been watching as I want to be reminded of what happened; I want to share their pain, not gawk at their sorrow. Granted, some coverage, especially in the beginning, was undeniably nasty, but as we learned more, I felt that the media as a whole tempered their coverage. But when I think about what these children went through, I want to be reminded. I don’t want to forget, I don’t want to wake up tomorrow and go to work and do my job as if nothing horrific has happened. And the media, and a few personalities in particular, have done an excellent job of reporting on the things we need to hear, and ensure that these beautiful children did not die in vain.

  • Andrew

    Not sure if my last comment went thru. Thanks for writing this. I’m from Monroe & one of my school classmate’s lost her child. Please take a moment to sign & forward my petition to the Sensationalist Media:
    http://signon.org/sign/dear-sensationalist-media?source=c.fwd&r_by=829947
    Peace!

  • M. A.

    I 1000% agree with Derek. While yes, CNN people were being their usual tard-ish selves, most of the other major networks were being – if anything – reserved in their coverage. If you saw something different, them maybe it’s time to watch different news?

    Sorry if you see a nation, a world, showing support for Newton, sharing their grief and wanting to help in any way imaginable as “gawking.” Through this horrible tragedy I’ve seen some simple yet amazing examples of love and kindness. The person who called the a Newton coffee shop, and bought the whole town a cup of coffee. Yes, in your world that’s probably “an imposition”, too.

    None of us exist in a vacuum. Well, OK, maybe YOU do. And personally, I hope you stay that way. The rest of us are trying to focus on this never happening again, and reforging a sense of community, letting the people of Newton know we are standing *with* them and that we care.

    But you go on, just ignore the world like nothing else but you matters.

  • SB

    There is another angle from which limiting coverage of grieving families makes sense. This is a mass murder/suicide; like all suicides, it is a communicative act – just one that’s grounded in delusional thinking. In a typical young male suicide (often involving firearms), the person seeks empathy from others that he will never enjoy, because it is only granted after death. By contrast, in a mass murder/suicide, the person seeks vicarious empathy – that shown to others, by others – which, again, is only granted after death. If you want to change such behavior on a group level, you have to remove the reinforcer: the news coverage of the grieving parents and citizens. Probably not popular, I know, but grounded in sound psychological theory.

  • Trey

    Thank you, Danah. As far as blogs can reach, it is a shame that your message will not be heard by everyone.

    If we as a society are to at least live symbiotically, we must address such events – I dare think few feel otherwise – but we must we must do so responsibly through process, reflection, and communication; only then can we take dutiful action.

    All too often we begin this cycle with communication, failing to acknowledge those intimately involved, to observe their emotional boundaries, to respect their will to grieve.

    Respecting a person’s privacy – the right to choose if, when, and how they communicate with others – is paramount. We must remember it is not only a representation of societal integrity, but a fundamental projection of our individual empathetic practices.

    Thank you for letting all of us speak our opinions. I am grateful you have shared yours.

    T

  • Dummy

    Thanks for doing that i guess, .. I would never let teens in my tent to light cigarettes. That’s gross. You must travel with a big ass tent.
    I wouldn’t even show a teen how to light a butt in the wind, though that’s when I learned.

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