I had a column almost written on an entirely different topic this week – and then my son texted me to turn on the news because there’d been explosions at the Boston Marathon.
I tuned in for about a minute to get the gist of the story, but quickly turned it off again. I’ve grown almost allergic to the kind of reporting that accompanies this kind of event. It’s all heat, no light.
Experience has shown repeatedly that the first reports from the scene are almost always false in important ways. Reporters tasked with filling hours and hours of air time when there are only a few bare facts inevitably stoop to passing along stupid rumors and encouraging “experts” to indulge in wild, unjust speculation that’s very difficult to call back because we all repeat it on Facebook, where it will still be being “shared” as true long after it’s been proven false.
Remember poor innocent Richard Jewell, the heroic security guard who saved so many lives on the scene of the Atlanta Olympics bombing – and then for a long, painful while was falsely accused of perpetrating it?
When reporters aren’t making things up to fill the time, they turn to teary witness interviews, where people who have just been traumatized tell us how they feel. Not sure what purpose that serves apart from spreading the trauma from the immediate victims to the rest of us.
There’s a word for thoughtlessly passing along unconfirmed stories and ghoulish interest in other people’s sorrow and it ain’t “journalism” or anything so noble as search for truth. It’s gossip, and gossip enervates our spiritual energy for anything good.
Should reporters not be on the scene fact-gathering? Of course they should. But a modest “return to regular programming” until there is something both new and duly confirmed to report would be not only more respectful to the dead and grieving, but in greater service to the important work of bringing the public a clear sense of what happened.
Trauma paralyzes. I’ll never forget being held up at gun point, and the odd feeling of being frozen by fear for several seconds. I’m not sure how long it took for rational thought to return, but it felt like an eternity before I had the self-possession to even think about running.
Similarly, during a First Aid class once, our instructor insisted the first thing to do in an emergency is tell some specific person to call for help. It’s not good enough to yell generically, “Dial 911!” You have to assign the task, or else everyone will just stand around, dazed. There might be a dozen cell phones on the premises, but until one person has the presence of mind to say, “You: call 911!” no one will.
The continuous loop of carnage and grieving inhibits presence of mind, paralyzing us with overwhelmed feelings – which, wittingly or not, plays into the hands of the Enemy of our souls. As Pope Francis preached at his Palm Sunday Mass this year, “We must not believe the Evil One when he tells us: you can do nothing to counter violence, corruption, injustice, your sins!”
Something can always be done.
Which brings me to how proud I feel of my fellow citizens. While the press often behaves badly in an emergency, many people – First Responders and just plain folk alike – rise to the occasion.
Perhaps you’ve seen the insight from the late Fred Rogers that is making its way through social media? “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
That’s great advice, and as John Hinderaker observes here, we can be proud of how many “helpers” there were in Boston Monday afternoon:
“News reports indicate that a number of runners crossed the finish line and kept on running to the nearest hospital, to give blood. There was remarkably little panic; instead, a well-organized rescue effort. … [T]he prompt and effective reaction by so many, amateurs as well as trained professionals, undoubtedly prevented the death toll from being much worse.”
If you can bear the sight of blood, look at the pictures accompanying the post. They show ordinary people leaping in to help – true and heartening love of neighbor. Look for the helpers. They far outnumber the wicked.
Note: I’m sure we are all praying for the people of Boston. If you know people there, this link might be useful. Google set up a “Person Finder” to help folks find their loved ones. Blood donors in Massachusetts can set up appointments by calling 1-800-RED CROSS.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.