Media responsibility

Between the late 1980s and mid-’90s the city of Detroit struggled in its efforts to control a rash of Devil’s Night arson fires. The fires usually began one or two days before Devil’s Night and got progressively worse as Halloween finally rolled around. TV crews were kept busy following what seemed like every fire in Detroit. At the time, I felt the amount of coverage was excessive, and this was before the 24/7 news cycles and countless news outlets that we have today. The story became national and international news, and the constant coverage gave the impression that the city of Detroit would soon burn to the ground.

In 1994, after a particularly brutal Devil’s Night, then-Mayor Dennis Archer decided to take a different approach. He held a news conference and announced Devil’s Night would from that point on be called Angel’s Night. He also encouraged residents to take the city back and motivated thousands of local volunteers to police the streets starting a few days before Halloween. Last but not least, he took probably one of the most important steps in the new effort to stop the fires: He sat down with the local news media. The mayor called for responsible reporting and asked the media to work with him in serving the public safety and the public interest by not flooding the airwaves with nonstop coverage of the arson fires. The media agreed. And the following year the arson fires dropped dramatically, and it has been a similar situation since.

I thought about the Angel’s Night approach after returning from a speaking engagement in St. Louis. While in town, I had the opportunity to attend a beautiful Rosary service at a parish in Ferguson very close to the scene where Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer. There were close to 200 people at Blessed Teresa of Calcutta parish, but the only media present other than me were the reporters for the local Catholic newspaper, the St. Louis Review.

There were so many photo and interview opportunities at that prayer service. People came not only from that parish but the surrounding areas to pray for peace, and it was a diverse crowd as well. Everyone there seemed willing to take a positive step toward peace, but the media didn’t seem to notice. They were too busy pointing their cameras and shining their bright lights on the crowds that gathered each night near the now infamous neighborhood in Ferguson.

Eventually the crowds began to disperse and the situation on the streets near the shooting scene quieted down, but not after a great deal of damage was done. And I couldn’t help but wonder how much the media mayhem was adding to an already bad situation and what might have happened if the media focused more on those promoting peace rather than those stirring up trouble.

Was it really necessary to show hour after hour of protests and confrontations between police and the many people who weren’t even residents of Ferguson and were just looking for their chance in the spotlight?

As a former TV newsperson who covered plenty of dramatic and volatile situations in a big city similar to St. Louis, I can certainly see keeping a crew or two near the scene. It was and still is a major developing story. But the coverage following the shooting was way over the top. This story is far from over, and with that in mind, the media need to make a concerted effort to be more responsible and a lot less sensational.

And as with the changes made in my hometown many years ago, public officials shouldn’t be afraid to ask the media to do just that.

Teresa Tomeo is the host of “Catholic Connection,” produced by Ave Maria Radio and heard daily on EWTN Global Catholic Radio and Sirius Channel 130.