Reporters swarmed the apartment of the San Bernadino shooting suspects Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik on Friday. Tony Harnden, a reporter for the Sunday Times of London, used a crowbar to help pry down the cardboard cover to the door of the home. When it was pointed out to him on Twitter that according to California law tenant rights are not forfeited immediately after death, Harnden quipped, “If I get charged, I’ll hire you as my lawyer.” As of the time of writing, his current Twitter profile avatar is a picture of a crowbar. This brazen debauchery can only be the product of the manic rating-obsession of cable news outlets encouraging debased reporters to take unethical — and likely illegal — steps in order to earn their pay. When incentives are placed on ratings and not professional integrity, journalistic ethics or basic human decency, it isn’t a case of journalism gone awry: this is corporatism gone insane, and all those involved should be held accountable.
The coverage borders on breaching a dozen ethical codes of the Society of Professional Journalists, the oldest organization representing journalists in the United States, including the tenet to “avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do.” In one particularly baffling moment, MSNBC broadcast uncensored images — censored here — of the social security card and driver’s license of Syed Farook’s mother, revealing her appearance, physical description, date of birth, social security number and home address. Apparently privacy is not as important as pandering to an audience.
Mohamad Bazzi, an associate professor at NYU’s journalism department, does not believe the coverage constituted a direct breach of ethics as much as poor judgment on the part of some news organizations. “I would argue that it had little news value — and certainly not the kind of news value that requires live, breathless coverage.” And perhaps this is the greatest issue with the news coverage: in the end, whatever ethical codes were or were not violated, the risk of transgression cannot even be justified by the sensationalist and largely uninformative reporting.
The 2014 film “Nightcrawler” followed a deranged cameraman as he goes to any lengths to have his news footage broadcast on air, including invading and videotaping the home of a just-murdered family. This was intended as a hyperbolic portrayal of predatory media, but unfortunately events in California have shown this to be no exaggeration. Seasoned journalists use informative coverage as a ballast for treading the tightrope between moral pitfalls, while the reporting of the San Bernardino shooting suspect’s home lacked the substantial journalistic weight to adequately balance its journalistic inequities. Some members of the media, in their continual descent to meet the public’s lowest expectations, has proven just how well art imitates life.
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