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Monday, May 13, 2013

The Impact Of Too Much Coverage

A few comments about last week's coverage of the rescue of the women from the Cleveland house where they'd been held for over a decade by Ariel Castro.

The man who was identified as the hero who saved them was Charles Ramsey, who did an interview afterwards that was flamboyant and included several uses of the word "bro." It was picked up by every media outlet, went viral, became Songified, and launched him into even more interviews with TV and radio stations all over.

Even McDonald's got into the act, because Ramsey mentioned he'd been eating their fast food when he heard Amanda Berry's cry for help. The next day, the company tweeted, "We salute the courage of Ohio kidnap victims and respect their privacy. Way to go Charles Ramsey — we'll be in touch."

The implication was that McDonald's was going to reward him for his heroic efforts and try to get some publicity out of it. Unfortunately, they didn't bother to do some basic research on the guy before embracing him, and it turned out that Ramsey was a repeat spousal abuser who had been in prison three times for domestic violence. That doesn't diminish his role in the rescue, but it is the sort of thing you want to know before you align your corporate identity with him.

It also turned out that Ramsey hadn't rescued the women alone. He wasn't even the first person on the porch. That was another guy named Angel Cordero, but he hasn't gotten nearly as much attention because he's not as outspoken as Ramsey -- and he doesn't speak English. Cordero's story has gotten plenty of play on Univision and Telemundo, but except for an interview by a bi-lingual reporter for a Cleveland TV station, he's been all but ignored by the English-speaking media.

On his CNN show "Reliable Sources" yesterday, Howard Kurtz talked with Connie Schultz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist from Cleveland about the media's coverage of the rescue of Michelle Knight, Gina DeJesus, and Amanda Berry. One of the best points Schultz made was that the crushing media coverage -- particularly the camera crews doing non-stop live shots from the streets in front of the women's homes and the house where Ariel Castro had kept them chained up -- continued to make them prisoners in their own communities. Here's the transcript:

KURTZ: You didn't want to do this interview this morning at the stake out where a lot of the networks have satellite trucks in front of some of those families' homes. And the reason for that was?

SCHULTZ: Right. Thank you for asking me that. This is my town and these people are in that neighborhood are traumatized by this, as well. And I can't imagine what it is like for these young women and family members if they're seeing all the trucks parked outside the house and outside the homes. And I saw that image this morning, it may have been on CNN of one of the one woman in a hoodie and a neighbor trying to protect her as she runs into her house for the first time in ten years and I thought we're victimizing these women, too. They're in hiding. We can do this better. When you see images like that and when you see tents and cable crews outside these homes what it telegraphs to viewers. What it does is it chips away at our credibility with a public that is already becoming less trustful of us.

KURTZ: Let me stay with that point because I understand that news organizations are there because the journalists have a job to do. You want to shout a question, but this is a heartbreaking case of women who were held in captivity under the noses of neighbors who say they didn't know for ten years. And, now, in effect, the mass media presence there is forcing them to stay behind closed doors. Is that really what's happening?

SCHULTZ: We had a helicopter. Do you remember that earlier this week? There was helicopter footage of the homes as they were waiting for them to come home. To me, I could not watch that and hear all these so-called former FBI who are experts on these women. The television judges and the speculation got wilder and wilder and all the things that they're supposing these women have gone through. You know, these young women are the ages of my daughters. So I can't help but also come at this as a mother and I was feeling so angry during much of this coverage because it contributed nothing to the discussion of domestic violence and to sexual abuse. It contributed nothing to showing a community, helping a community show support for these women. I understand it's not the media's job to help the community do that, but it's also not our job to be such a corrosive influence while we're here.
Too often, the media's job -- especially the cable news channels -- seems to be nothing more than exploitation without context or real reporting. It's hard to dig up details on a story when all you're doing is standing on the street waiting for your next live shot.