Friday, April 04, 2008

Sometimes Fastest Isn't Best

Today is a sad day in Colerain Township and the rest of Hamilton County. For me, firefighters have always been the epitome of heroes (in a world and at a time when we use that word far too freely): their job is to keep us safe from situations that most of us would run screaming from. Losing two of our local heroes is tragic.

But I was furious this morning as I watched the local news media cover the story. As I was getting ready to leave, between 7 and 9 this morning, reports started coming in that two firefighters were "missing" at a fire in Colerain. Then word came that the firefighters had perished. This was before any confirmation from Colerain's Public Information Officer; Channel 5 and Channel 9 (I don't know about Channel 12) freely admitted that they were reporting information based on radio communications they heard over their scanners.

Why does a story like this warrant breaking news coverage? From the moment the local media recounted reports of missing firefighters, every family-member of every on-duty Colerain firefighter had to have been a wreck. There was no public need-to-know involved. The burning house was at the end of a dead-end street, so there were no traffic issues. The fire didn't pose any apparent threat to surrounding houses, and the smoke didn't even come close to giving rise to the need to evacuate anyone.

There's a good possibility that the families of the two firefighters who passed away this morning first learned that their loved one might be in peril on the morning news. Is that really the decent thing to do? When there's no public emergency, wouldn't it be better to let family notifications take place in the most dignified manner possible?

Several years ago, I met a woman whose teenage grandson had died in a fire. Her grandson was living with her at the time of the fire. She learned of the fire and rushed back to her house. The police wouldn't let her down the street, and instead had her wait with a friendly neighbor. As they waited for the police to come and give them some information, they had the television on. Imagine the woman's horror when a news chopper showed a live shot of what was obviously a body covered by a tarp in the front lawn of her smouldering home.

CNN and its progeny have conditioned us to expect to learn of "events" as they unfold. But at some point, producers have to start making responsible decisions about which stories warrant immediate coverage and which can wait until a decent interval has passed. Was our community better-served by the nearly live coverage of firefighters hugging each other in grief and sorrow, or were these truly private moments that could have stayed private? Was there some compelling reason to immediately report the death of two firefighters before their identities were confirmed and their families notified, or could we have waited until the noon news for that information?

Anyone who has experienced the sudden, unexpected loss of a family member knows that there is no "easy" way to learn of a loved one's passing. But I can't imagine how much more difficult it must be for it to be disclosed via a crawling ticker during Good Morning America. At some point in the last couple decades, "news" has become synonymous with voyeurism. Maybe it's time to for the media to address that.

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