Adkins: Does local media represent regular citizens?

The day after Christmas, I turned on the local news for background noise — something to fill the quiet house while my parents were out grocery shopping. I wasn’t really listening until a particular breaking news update caught my attention: a mom and daughter were killed in Lake Oswego on Christmas day when their Nissan lost traction on the Highway 26 and collided into oncoming traffic.

That was how they were identified: “mom and daughter.” It was the type of story I’d heard a hundred times before on the news — general, tragic and forgettable. Just as quickly as their story had entered my life, it was over, and the reporter had moved on to another story equally as shocking as this one. But I couldn’t forget what I’d heard. Who were these people? Where were they going and where were they coming from? How are their family, friends and acquaintances dealing with this loss? How old was the daughter? Was she still in school, still deciding what she wanted to do with her life, or was she older, with a career or a family of her own? What legacy did they want to leave? What were they passionate about? What gifts did they give to the world that will live on after their deaths?

Tragedies happen every day, and we cannot mourn them all, but if the news is going to cover these stories, then they should be covered properly. The brief, clickbait-style stories that have become so ubiquitous in media are unjust misrepresentations of the people behind the headlines. If it was your wife and daughter who had died in that car accident, how would you want them to be remembered?

Two years ago, then-20-year-old Aaron Larson was arrested for stealing a car and robbing a bank in Portland, Oregon. What audiences didn’t learn from coverage about the crime was that Larson was a talented singer and performer at Gresham High School, a dedicated member of the top choirs, a team captain of the football team and that he graduated on honor roll. If you knew these things about Larson, you might believe his justification that he committed the crime out of desperation (he needed the money to pay his rent); however, most people, who had only the facts provided by the media, did not.

I am not saying that Larson’s crimes were justified — they weren’t. However, the media portrayed Larson as a criminal before portraying him as a person, and our judgment is clouded by seeing Larson’s mugshot before even reading his name. As readers, we don’t learn the facts about the person — only the facts about the crime. By focusing on the crime, we are left with a story that, though true, is incomplete. And the consequences of that story can have lasting impacts. In five years, Larson will be released from jail and will have to look for a job. When his future employers Google his name, they will find countless articles about his crimes; however, the articles about his high school accomplishments will be impossible to find.

In the coverage of the stories of Cody Duk-Woo Moore and Jacob “Jay” Timothy Richter-Shea, almost every local news outlet described the same story — that the two young men had committed several violent crimes before committing suicide. Somehow, no one had anything more to say about these young men’s lives, yet people who knew the boys said that they had “big hearts” and had taken a wrong path: A past girlfriend of Richter-Shea’s expressed her sadness that no coverage had detailed the difficult childhood he experienced, and she was distressed to see the anger and hatred coming from complete strangers in the online community.

Scrolling through the Facebook comments section of any story, it is clear that readers are eager to express anger and hatred towards a “villain,” even when they don’t know him or her. One story shared by the Oregonian on Facebook, for example, featured a package thief caught on camera taking a fall, which generated responses such as, “Too bad she didn’t fall on her neck,” and “No broken bones? Not bad enough.” Many advocated for the paper to un-blur the thief’s face and reveal her identity. The theft was undoubtedly wrong, but the readers commenting these things on Facebook did not have the perspective of knowing who this woman was, or why she committed this crime, leaving them with an incomplete story and an incomplete understanding.

Why is it that so many stories in our media invoke misunderstanding of the true complexity of the situation, arousing anger, division and fear? It is because of the lack of depth in coverage of events like these. Just as quickly as these stories enter our lives, they are over, and the reporter moves on to another equally shocking story, giving audiences no tools to fully understand the situation or even prevent it in the future.

What happens when media misrepresent these people? What happens to the families and friends who will continue living this story long after the news has moved on, who will be suffering from the backlash, and who will carry the injustice of that half-truth?

Stories that give multiple perspectives only provide a deeper understanding of a situation — and these types of stories are necessary to enlighten audiences as to how similar situations can be prevented. Half-stories only inject fear into their audiences.

The truth is that the world is not such a scary place, but media like to portray it as such. It gives us things to be afraid of all over the world, heartless villains to avoid and hopeless victims we pray that we are never so unfortunate to become. In response, we feel hatred toward people we don’t truly know. You may argue that if someone commits a crime, they do not deserve to have their story told — but the result of a half-story simply creates more fear and hatred in the world by not providing an understanding or remedy.

The American Press Institute states that “the foremost value of news is as a utility to empower the informed.” However, if reporters do not write their stories in ways that inspire, engage and activate the compassion and intelligence of their readers, they cannot expect to empower or truly inform their readers. We must examine the purpose of media, because if our stories are not adding value, they are simply adding noise. If our purpose is to inform, educate, inspire and awaken audiences, then we must become storytellers, not just reporters.

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Maddie Adkins

Maddie Adkins