New on ‘Beat the Press’: The media and the mass shooting dilemma

Photo (cc) 2013 by Maryland GovPics

The new “Beat the Press” podcast is up, and this week we have a single-theme program: the mass murders in Uvalde, Texas, and what role the media play — and should play — in covering what has become a long string of such incidents.

Also on tap are our panel’s Rants & Raves. Mine is on the social media meltdown at The Washington Post, recorded after reporter David Weigel was suspended for retweeting a homophobic, sexist joke but before Felicia Sonmez was fired for continuing to criticize the Post after she’d been asked not to.

Hosted, as always, by Emily Rooney, along with Lylah Alphonse of The Boston Globe, Joanna Weiss of Experience magazine and me. You can listen here and subscribe in your podcast app.

A heart-breaking example of how local news can bind a community’s wounds

Shortly after the school shootings in Uvalde, Texas, I checked in to see what local newspapers were reporting. The San Antonio Express-News, a Hearst paper, seemed to be doing a thorough job, but its strict paywall meant that I couldn’t read anything. Then I discovered there was a paper in Uvalde — the Leader-News. But at that early stage there was no coverage of the shootings, so I moved on.

In the days since the shootings, the twice-weekly Leader-News has emerged as a symbol of a community’s suffering. An all-black front page garnered quite a bit of attention. And a sensitive, detailed story in The New Yorker by Rachel Monroe brought us into the lives of the staff members. We learn that Kimberly Rubio, the reporter whose daughter, Lexi, was among those killed, had been a receptionist at the paper and was offered a newsroom job because publisher Craig Garnett often saw her reading a book. “I said, ‘You know, if you love to read that much, you can write,’” Garnett told Monroe. “And, by gosh, she didn’t let us down.”

The New Yorker story is heart-breaking, but it’s also affirming. You’re not going to turn to the Leader-News for an investigative report on the failures of the local police. But as Garnett said, what the paper can provide is “context. A source of understanding, and hand-holding, and healing.” Finally, here is a story from the paper on the victims of the shootings. The headline: “They were smart, funny, loved.”

In Uvalde, the press reported the official account — and then kept digging

The Uvalde school massacre is shaping up as a massive police scandal. Officers failed to respond as they had been trained to do. We’re going to learn a lot more in the days and weeks to come, but for now, I want to comment on one narrow aspect — the media’s dependence on official sources in such situations. There’s been a lot of criticism on social media about the press’ reliance on police in the initial coverage. Adam Johnson put it this way:

Jay Rosen offered a more nuanced critique.

There’s no doubt that journalists rely too heavily on police sources who may or may not be telling the truth. Sources lie, especially when the truth would make them look bad. I have no reason to think that police officers are more likely to lie than anyone else. But they’re not less likely to lie, either. I’ve written about the problem of “the police giving us good stories in return for our not asking too many questions.”

But I don’t think the Uvalde shootings are an example of journalistic malfeasance. In the immediate aftermath of a terrible breaking-news situation, official sources are often the only ones available. You pass along what they have to say and you keep reporting. That’s what happened in Uvalde. Yes, we learned that the original police account was wrong, and that officials may have been flat-out lying. And it was the press from whom we learned about those falsehoods.

It’s an imperfect process. But the press did not blindly accept what they were being told. They kept digging, and that’s why the official narrative has fallen apart.