THE ISSUES cry to be sorted out in the debate over how the media handled the hostage crisis. Hot journalistic pursuit yielded gripping stories, and especially pictures, providing both the vital information and the vicarious participation in drama for which the public appears to have an immense interest. Sometimes lost, however, were the proper relationships between journalist and audience and source.
We are not talking here of whether all of us at the viewing end enjoyed the spectacle on view. No one, we trust, is blaming the messenger for bearing dismal tidings, which included anguishing elements of personal and national duress.
Nor are we talking of the evident political purposes of the hijackers, or of the political overtones of statements made by some hostages in stressful passage. These elements were, unquestionably, part of the event and part of the legitimate story, as distasteful as they may have been to hear.
We are talking of the widespread sense that television helped those who had hijacked, murdered and held Americans to "humiliate" this country beyond the extent inherent in events; rubbed it in. There were excesses of taste, and they cannot be condoned, no matter that the First Amendment certainly permits them. Some would say that the evident antidote entails a measure of discretion verging on self-censorship that is either unacceptable in a free society or unimaginable in an emotional, competitive crisis situation. But good taste should not be considered beyond the journalistic pale, least of all by journalists.
There is the further disquieting possibility that television afforded terrorists a means of direct, unseemly and unfair leverage upon the president and in that way undermined or at least burdened his efforts to resolve the crisis in what he felt was the best way open to the United States. We take this possibility seriously but we do not have the sense that this is what happened this time. We do not see that the ordeal of the hostages was extended or the price of their return bid up by the presence or conduct of television. The opposite seems as likely. Things got safer for the 39 once their captors decided to go the television route. It is the earlier kidnapped seven, still held unseen by hidden terrorists, who remain in peril.
We remain convinced that professionalism provides the best answers to avoiding exploitation by the stagers of events. The rules are right out of Journalism 1. Reporters should ask tough questions and explore the different aspects of the happening. In circumstances where they cannot ask questions or compel answers, they should use the opportunities inherent in their command of airtime and newsprint to present the story in context. These rules will go a long way toward easing questions from without the news business and doubts from within.
In this instance, the coverage had, as usual, its disorderly and mindless moments. But the lapses seem in retrospect to have been less important than the service to viewers who desperately wanted to know more about an event that they took to be a dark challenge to their country.