Monday, July 28, 2003

Making the News

The exchange in the newsroom at the San Diego Union-Tribune probably went something like this:

"Hey Chief! I've got a great idea for a story!"

"OK, pitch me."

"Well, you remember that girl from San Diego, Marla Bennett, who got killed a year ago in a bomb at Hebrew University in Jerusalem? Well, they're having a memorial for her. It's been exactly a year."

"Yawn. Haven't we done that story to death already...pardon my French."

"Yeah, but thousands of people are supposed to show up. And Peter Yarrow of Peter Paul and Mary is going to perform."

"Sounds interesting. But people will accuse us of being too one-sided. Of only focusing on the pain of the victim. You know that Israel doesn't play all that well here in California. You've got to start thinking more creatively here."

"I'm not sure what you mean exactly."

"Give me a parallel. Maybe pair this Marla with another American university kid who got blown Israeli terrorists. Yeah, that would be perfect."

"But there haven't been any..."

"You've got to think out of the box! Remember that piece ABC News did a year ago. About the Palestinian teenage suicide bomber who blew up another teenager, a 17-year-old Israeli girl, at a supermarket in Jerusalem. That's what I'm talking about."

"But that piece generated a ton of hate mail and no end of controversy by people saying that it was totally inappropriate."

"Exactly! Think of the ratings. Do something like that."

"Well, there was this girl in Gaza..."

"Go on..."

"Her name was Rachel Corrie. She got caught under an Israeli bulldozer."

"I like it."

"But it was clearly an accident."

"Out of the box, kid, out of the box!"

"I don't wasn't like she was even from San Diego. I think she went to school somewhere up in Washington State."

"West Coast! No problem. You want to win a Pulitzer someday, this is how it starts."

"But wouldn't this be too obvious an attempt to just get us a little extra publicity?"

"You've got it all wrong, kid. We've got to play up the inappropriateness. To our own advantage."

"How so, Chief?"

"Interview people for the article and tell them from the get-go that you're going to be making a completely specious parallel, a cloying attempt to grab the reader's attention. Then write up their outraged reaction before the article even comes out!"

"Is that good journalism?"

"You're missing the point again. And oh yeah, don't forget to ask the family to comment, too."

"They'll never speak to me. They're still grieving pretty hard."

"Perfect. Then you can make up a good line like 'the mother slammed the door on this intrepid reporter. The tears were heavy in her eyes.'"



"I can't do it."

"Have you been listening to a word..."

"Isn't there a journalistic code of ethics? I remember reading about it once in a class..."

"That was written for a different day, a different age."

"No, Chief. There are still values we have to uphold. As journalists. And as human beings. Making a parallel, a pairing between two girls who died in entirely unrelated circumstances may be expedient, it may sell papers, but it cheapens the memory of both."

"And not doing it puts our readers to sleep."

"I don't agree. Every individual is unique. Every story deserves to be told on its own. If I can't write a story about Marla and make her life stand out without resorting to cheap tricks, what kind of reporter am I? Just one who takes a very real human tragedy and cynically turns it into a simplistic headline."

"All right, all right. I see your point. Go on and write the honorable story...with my blessing."

Would that this exchange had actually taken place. Instead, click here to read the actual story that ran in the San Diego Union Tribune just prior to the memorial gathering for Marla which was held in San Diego on July 21, 2003.

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