How Not To Be A Dick When You're A Reporter Covering A Tragedy

Lesson 1: Try not to exclusively make an exclusive ass of yourself exclusively, as you were first to report.
Publish date:
April 18, 2013
tragedy, journalism, reporting, boston marathon bombing

I got a Gchat message from a friend in the media yesterday that the suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing had been arrested -- no really, this time.

Because I am a reporter and competitive and a human being and like that euphoric thrill that comes with BEING FIRST AND KNOWING FIRST AND LETTING OTHER PEOPLE KNOW FIRST (as much as I realize how dickish and lizardy and pathetic the impulse is) I hurriedly retweeted the Associated Press's report saying as much.


Wrong again. The FBI done shut that false report down, son.

There is so much pressure to beat and to win in the news game. It translates to the bottom line and your job and raises and keeping your job and moving ahead in your career and succeeding in a very competitive industry.

But with the celebrification of the industry, with TMZ paying off every hotel employee in that 30-mile-zone and that ruthless whatever-it-fucking-takes tenor creeping throughout the country's media culture, the hysteria to be first no matter the story has reached a new level of insanity.

CNN practically bust a nut in its excitement over their exclusive reporting of the bombing suspect's arrest and The Daily Show had a field day later that night about the network's pathetically M. Night Shyamalan rendition of the news.

Jon Stewart showed an eviscerating clip montage of the network braying over their "EXCLUSIVE REPORTING" (what the fuck does that even mean -- I'm typing an EXCLUSIVE word on my EXCLUSIVE laptop for this EXCLUSIVE blog entry on this EXCLUSIVE April 18, 2013). As Stewart noted, it was definitely exclusive. In that it was "completely fucking wrong."

Reporting hard news is very, very hard. I get it. My experience in hard news is a blip compared to veteran reporters, but when I was at The Des Moines Register working night cops for many months, I had a number of unforgettable and jarring experiences covering the tragedy and human heartbreak beat.

I reached out to the families of victims of a tragedy, doorknocking as they call it, and then found out on one particularly awful occasion that I was breaking the news of a death to the family -- before the police. Awful. Disgusting. Unforgivable. And following instructions.

On Christmas Day, it was my assignment to doorknock to find out about a murder victim. That was pretty bottom-feedy. "Hello, and merry Christmas. Let's talk about your dead neighbor. Please. Tell me. HOW DOES IT MAKE YOU FEEL?"

Then there's the reporting fail anecdote that is perhaps most telling about what can drive the aggression from a newsroom's standpoint. One night I was very cunningly sweet-talked by a police information officer (or PIO, the police spokesman essentially who releases information) not to bother sticking around at the scene of a reported fire because it wasn't worth it, and then when my editor agreed, I begrudgingly left.

This was despite my gut telling me to stay, and the next day I found out there was a suicide double-homicide at the fire scene revealed after I left. (In Iowa, this is huge. If memory serves correctly, at the time I was there in the late '90s, the murder statistics were around a dozen a year.)

TL;DR: I missed the EXCLUSIVE. I could have had an EXCLUSIVE. As a reporter, I failed. So we reported the heart wrenching scene the next day -- shudder -- along with everyone else, when we could have had -- angels singing now -- A MOTHERFUCKING EXCLUSIVE. I mean, forget the victims here, what a tragedy.

It's the kind of warped logic that makes you ashamed to be a human being, let alone a journalist.

Even here, at xoJane I have a hard time shaking the stupidity of the all-caps EXCLUSIVE-boner so many reporters are awkwardly rocking on the reg. Right after starting here, I got offered up some ad campaign that Ashley Madison was releasing, and I insisted -- I mean INSISTED -- to Emily that we had to have "exclusive" in the title.

Who. Fucking. Cares.

It makes me cringe at myself to think of some of my naked hungry bloodthirstiness to land anything that smacks of EXCLUSIVITY. When I first started at The New York Post in 2005, I reached out to almost every publicist I met at every shitty networking event, and I used this same graspy language in my follow-up outreach.


Which is a total untruth to start with. I didn't have that power. No reporter does. It's common -- and happened to me more than once, where I had stories killed at the 2:30 p.m. edit meeting, even after weeks of work put in on them.

You can't guarantee shit as a reporter unless your name rhymes with Schmurdoch. I remember being fed my own bullshit back to me by one of these small-potatoes flacks who wrote back with the eyes-wet excitement of a guy seducing a woman already a couple drinks in.

"Hey Mandy, yeah. We can definitely offer you exclusives. Let's talk about exclusives :)"

No one had ever heard of this company. I could exclusively report that I was the only one who gave a shit about them. There was my scoop.

But -- as David Cross says at the start of one of his hilarious live stand-up albums, I think it's "Shut Up, You Fucking Baby," when he sarcastically says he looks forward to everyone on his outdoor tour approaching him awkwardly and hamfistedly forcing on him their dream-packed shitty mix tapes and their screenplays and their demo tapes -- at the end of his rant, he adds, with a touch of genuine empathy: Hey man, you gotta start somewhere.

Which is exactly what I was doing mimicking the big-girl-reporter-pants language of "exclusives." And so was that flack. Like so many journalists, I was the little baby reporter cub mimicking the big papa bear language of media.

Or as LOLcats might say: "I CAN HAS EXCLUSIVE?"

Really, in the crass willingness to eat-your-own-young bulldozing for EXCLUSIVE results, reporters are ultimately making a mockery of what is truly important. Because if everything is important (BEING FIRST TO REPORT FROM ONE SOURCE! WHO COULD BE WRONG! AND IT COULD HAVE NATIONAL IMPLICATIONS FOR SECURITY!) then nothing (national implications for security) is.

Of course, this is all a delicate balance. Governments lie. Police lie. Human beings lie. The public does have a right to know. But do they always? Do they really have a right to know what amounts to a fucking barroom gossip session when the chances of it being wrong are so significant and likely?

The New York Post took the cake in its egregiously and dangerously erroneous reporting via social media the day of the Boston Marathon bombing, vastly miscalculating and then reporting on casualties and saying a suspect had been apprehended.

But let's give exclusive credit where exclusive credit is due. CNN did an impressive runner-up job yesterday.

When the directive coming down from the news directors at media organizations is to crush and "beat" the competition no matter what, reporters are left to suffer -- and to then make those who have suffered so much already, suffer even further.

Because this kind of coverage? It truly is insufferable.

Maybe it's time for journalists, especially the little cub ones imitating mama and papa bear reporter, to realize that their roles in nabbing exclusives really just don't fucking matter, even when (especially when) someone is a six-figure-paid television talking head. Underpromise, overdeliver. Fail for your editors and producers. Succeed for the people you are covering and for the people who are watching and reading.

Here's a radical idea. Use caution. Multiple sources. Begin to associate "exclusive" with "often wrong," "lazy" and "done for the glory."

It's the journalistic equivalent of the Humblebrag. Minus the humility. Plus the concern trolling.

Yes, I see and accept reality for what it is. And the news cycle has definitely become a disgusting 24-hour one, as the Sarah Palin HBO movie so aptly put it: Everything is forgotten, almost no story matters or is remembered after only a single day. But let's be in this for the long game.

Because, really, in our hearts, everyone knows that playing the short game is for the cheap and the desperate and the laughingstocks. Exclusively.


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