Are reporters vultures — or just doing their job?

By Caitlin Kelly

One of my first national magazine stories...I entered an animal testing lab. Grim and gruesome. But it was part of my job as a reporter
One of my first national magazine stories…I entered an animal testing lab. Grim and gruesome. But it was part of my job as a reporter

Here’s a recent story about what it feels like to be a reporter, a rare glimpse into the feelings we’re never allowed to share publicly:

Over the coming hours and days, millions of people are going to watch millions of hours and read millions of words on the Umpqua Community College shooting. They will learn what it looked like, from witnesses who escaped with their lives; they will learn about the victims—their lives, their hobbies, their dreams—from their friends and families; they will learn about the killer’s (or killers’) backgrounds and motives. Many of the same people who will eagerly consume this heartbreaking and enlightening information are the ones now criticizing the reporters gathering it for them. Where the fuck does the public think this news comes from?

The public may say it doesn’t want the horrible details; ratings, circulation, and traffic say the public is lying. The public may claim it values accuracy over speed, and that it is monstrous to contact witnesses this soon after a tragedy; the broad and voracious consumption of breaking reports, and the tendency to spread them as far and wide as possible, argue otherwise. The public will definitely immediately turn on CNN when news is breaking, then mock CNN for having clueless reporters uselessly speculate because there’s nothing to report yet, then turn to another channel to see if they’ve got something to report.

No outlet could conceivably think of sitting out the race to report something like this.

I’m grateful I’m no longer a hard news reporter, let alone at a tabloid  — my last staff job, and literally my last staff position in journalism — ended in 2006. I was a reporter at the New York Daily News, then the U.S.’s 6th-largest daily newspaper.

It felt like an out-take from some 1930s film: tough-talking dames, foul-mouthed editors in suspenders, eager young interns, aggressive photographers. There was a guy in a corner of the enormous open newsroom called Gypsy.

I had only worked for broadsheets — The Globe and Mail, Montreal Gazette and, freelance, for The New York Times. Even at their most aggressive, we didn’t behave like tab reporters who would, and did, do anything to beat their competition and win the wood, the paper’s entire front page.

The news we all read, see and listen to doesn’t erupt spontaneously — it’s the result of decisions made by top editors, often middle-aged white men — about what they deem most important and interesting.

The New York Times newsroom
The New York Times newsroom

At the News, I was sent on a stake-out, in Manhattan’s summer heat and humidity, to stand outside a midtown hotel and await the arrival of two Quebecoise visitors, one of whom had been attacked and injured, not critically. I was sent because I speak French, not a common skill in that newsroom. My job was to — in News parlance — get the quote, some pithy summation of their fear and shock.

That no other reporter would have.

It was tiring, boring and bizarre to stand there for hours, to clog the sidewalk beside competing reporters from the Times, Post and others. With an intern, our photographer busy chatting to her pals, I tried to sneak into the hotel several times, eventually caught by an irate security guard.

I’ve never felt so stupid or ashamed of my role.

When there’s a shooting — which in the U.S. is sadly common — reporters descend on the scene, desperate to speak to anyone involved and to be aggressive about it.

Because if they’re not, and a competitor for eyeballs, clicks, pageviews and revenue beats them to a source, they’re in deep shit.

Hence the comparison made to vultures — journalists swooping in the second they see blood, death, destruction, tragedy, to dig through its entrails and feast.

Some reporters are fine with this behavior. I’m not.

Partly because there are complex issues that rarely get discussed outside of newsrooms or journalism conferences: what to cover, when to cover and when to stop, what to ask.

Because the assumption is: everything, as fast as possible.

One reason reporters can look like vultures is that those of us working differently, not on breaking news — writing longer features or profiles, covering business or sports or government — remain invisible to the public.

We spend our days ferreting out information we hope will be useful, not merely that hour’s latest tragedy, which can appear titillating or voyeuristic.

So, the public often think “the media” are only those they suddenly come into contact with when we’re at our most aggressive and, yes, our ugliest.

When I teach journalism, I also remind my students — especially women — that we’re paid to break social rules: to run across a room, to interrupt, to ask tough, probing questions, repeatedly when necessary, to challenge authority, whether political, religious or the wealthy.

At our best, to speak truth to power.

That, too, sometimes offends the more decorous or docile.

Reporters don’t contact victims and bystanders because they get off on it; they do it because they’re a small part of a long-established news ecosystem that begins and ends with an audience that understandably wants to know what the facts are, which is to say that it wants to hear what victims and bystanders saw.

I got out of tabloid reporting because I couldn’t take feeling awful anymore. One former co-worker said she got out of it the moment she realized she had been doing it long enough to stop feeling awful.

But…I draw a line that others are failing to do now.

I do not want sentimentality or hand-wringing.

I do not want to hear one more slick television reporter — NBC Nightly News, I’m looking at you — yammer on inanely about a community’s gathering together to “heal.”

The late David Carr, NYT media columnist -- much missed. Brilliant, no bullshit.
The late David Carr, NYT media columnist — much missed. Brilliant, no bullshit.

I’m so done with cliches, false emotion and bullshit.

Here’s what I want from fellow journalists:

— Insight, analysis, hard data, fact patterns, trends.

Here’s what I don’t want:

— Drama, emotion, speculation, guessing, uninformed opinion.

What do you think of reporters’ behavior?

Do you watch or listen to the news?

What do you find missing — or most valuable?