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Coverage of school massacre shows TV at its worst and its best

As soon as news of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., emerged on Friday, everything else faded away.

Television coverage was more than widespread. Confused and hurried reports from the scene. President Barack Obama making an emotional, heartfelt statement about it. That was an unforgettable moment – a politician reacting by natural instinct, representing what many people were feeling.

As the weekend unfolded, the sniping at the media and the entertainment industry began and grew fierce.

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It's true that it was reported by various outlets that the killer was allowed to freely enter the school. Also that his mother worked at the school and that he had an agitated encounter with school officials the day before, and that he used two pistols in the shooting. None of this was true, and there were other inaccuracies. Mind you, much of the incorrect information came from the police and other authorities who were scrambling to gather information.

The attacks on the media at such times amount to attacking the messenger. It's a fact that television news performs poorly when faced with a circumstance such as the massacre in Newtown. On all-news channels, there is an obsession with dwelling on the story endlessly, even as the facts are unclear. It's also a fact that bits of information are repeated over and over and that a handful of images that might convey the situation is also recycled ceaselessly.

But this is human nature. The news anchors, their producers and the reporters are only human and reacting, in the main, as most people would. It's also a fact that the style and mythology of news reporting on TV is not dreamed up by predatory, unthinking media bosses. The style and methods tend to emerge from consultation with the viewer – through focus groups and other tools of research about what viewers want to see.

At a time when people are horrified and confused, what unfolds on TV can be horrifying and confusing. It is not the mandated role of the medium to ignore the horror and wait until everything is clearly, verifiably known. It is, in fact, the sense of confusion and horror that has emphatic impact and leads to change.

The best and worst of television is on display in such circumstances. The worst can be the idle speculation as pundits are rushed on-air and begin pontificating. On Fox News on Friday, a gruff former New York police detective began ranting about David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam killer. He said he had interviewed Berkowitz and asked him for his motive. The ex-detective said the stated motive was, "My mother put me up for adoption." The Fox anchor and the pundit then began heaping scorn on the idea that early-childhood trauma might form an adult killer.

The day of a massacre, when few facts are known, is not the time to discuss mental illness on TV. It's absurd, but it is also a reflection of how viewers are struggling to comprehend what is happening. Sometimes the worst of television is the worst of us.

The best of TV news in these circumstances can simply be its role in reminding us that horror erupts, that terrible, mind-numbing deeds are done. Only by acquainting ourselves with horror can we learn from it, can we learn how to try to prevent it from happening again.

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At the same time, it is not just TV news that needs to hesitate, to calm down and consider the events. We do too. Given the multiplicity of news-information sources – from mainstream TV to social media – we live in a time of outrageous confusion, speculation, spite and easy condemnation. We seem to like it that way. Carefully assembled, clear reportage comes later. That's a fact, for us and the media we feed and feed on. Don't blame TV. Instead, examine what we want and why we want it.

Airing tonight

The Iranian Americans (PBS, 9 p.m.) is a new documentary that is mainly about 25 Iranians who were uprooted from their home country and heritage after the revolution in Iran in 1979, and had to rebuild their lives in the United States. In some cases, they helped to create a new community and in other instances, they went their own way. The doc dwells on the culture they brought with them and the tensions between the individual and the community.

All times ET. Check local listings.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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