April 22, 2013

It’s a mantra that appears to gain media momentum every time the United States sustains some criminal calamity: Don’t focus on the perpetrators. Focus on the victims. Failing to follow that prescription, goes the thinking, inspires future criminals.

Yesterday, on an edition of CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” this position found a passionate advocate in Lauren Ashburn, founder of the Daily Download. When host Howard Kurtz mentioned that the Sunday newspapers were full of big profiles on the Tsarnaev brothers, the alleged Boston Marathon bombers, Ashburn retorted, “So sick of it.” More:

ASHBURN: Hey, does anybody remember 8-year-old Martin Richard? Who was that? That was the 8-year-old boy who was blown up. All we’re going to do now for the next week is focus on we will know more about these people than we know — these boys — than we know about our own relatives. We will be into their mind.

And a bit more:

We do need to worry about where the spotlight falls.

The media have an immense power over the minds of the American people. This is what you see day in and day out.

So you’re focusing on negative, you’re focusing on the bad boys. What about the other people? What about moving forward? What about issues? How can we prevent this? What do we need to do in society?

Kurtz expressed concern that media focus has a way of glorifying criminals simply by keeping them in the spotlight.

The Erik Wemple Blog, a guest on yesterday’s show, argued in the other direction — that we need massive amounts of information on these people. Time for some elaboration:

1) It’s a false choice. This issue commonly gets framed as an either-or proposition: Don’t write about the perpetrators, write about the victims. As if the news media cannot do both. If there’s one thing that Aurora and Newtown and Boston have taught us, it’s that news organizations can deliver mounds and mounds of content. No need to choose.

2) Just what does “focus on the victims” mean? There’s little shortage of material on the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings. Here’s the search page for Martin Richard. Krystle Campbell. Lu Lingzi. Sean Collier. The New York Times built a page for the victims. Advocates of more-victim-focus need to be explicit about just what more the media should be doing about the victims. More and deeper profiles? Should TV news run daily features over the next week or so? Outside of profiling them and recording the loving things said at their memorial services, how do you squeeze more from the story?

Which leads to the last and most important point:

3) Perpetrators are often twisted and tortured souls. Anyone watching cable news on Friday came away with at least one truth. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the living suspect, was until recently a nice and sociable kid with a bright future. That profile was pieced together from endless interviews with buddies who’d grown up with him, wrestled with him and hung out with him.

So just how did he make the transition to alleged marathon bomber?

And what of his older brother? What did he tell the FBI a couple in 2011, when he was interviewed? Just what did he do on his six-month trip to Russia in 2012? What radicalized him?

Questions as deep and complicated as these tend to crop up around the alleged perpetrators of heinous crimes. That’s why media organizations spend a lot of air time and ink covering them, not because they’re seeking to glorify another mass murderer. Journalists flock to unanswered questions. Behind the story of the Tsarnaev brothers there are more of those than the media and the authorities will ever be able to take on..

Keep the Tsarnaev profiles coming. The Erik Wemple Blog pledges to read all of them and tips the hat to the excellent work already turned in by such outlets as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and others.

It’s all public-service journalism, too. We can’t stop mass murders if we don’t understand mass murderers. We can’t stop terrorism if we don’t understand terrorists.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.