Pack journalism

The recent anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing led me to reflect on the mentality of pack journalism and how it took over the newsroom of the Muskogee Phoenix 25 years ago.
My first exposure to a mass-scale media event came in 1977, when three Girl Scouts were murdered at Camp Scott near Locust Grove, Oklahoma, as my third week as a full-time professional journalist began. Naturally, journalists from the national and state levels swarmed to join we locals in the coverage. The case was big news when it happened, when suspect Gene Leroy Hart was arrested and when he acquitted. I had to learn how to defend my right to the territory the big boys considered theirs by default. The national TV and print media people were only in town during those three high points, but a lot of good state people were there all along. I enjoyed meeting and interacting with them, especially Doug Hicks and Rob Martindale from the Tulsa World.
It was a big story, and was deservedly covered in a big way.
So was the Oklahoma City bombing, but the style of news coverage had changed between 1977 and 1990.
Naturally, everyone from national and state media outlets flocked to Oklahoma City after receiving news of the bombing.
At the Muskogee Phoenix, Executive Editor George Benge couldn’t wait to get there himself. He also recruited reporter Donna Hales, photographer Jerry Willis (as I recall) and several other people from the newsroom to make the trek. I know Donna stayed in Oklahoma City for two or three days. Her main coup was finding the grandmother of one of the missing victims.
I stayed in Muskogee and was glad to do so. Not that I’ve ever shirked from covering a disaster, but I questioned the wisdom of abandoning our main duty as journalists — to report the news of our community — to go report a story everyone else would have, in pretty much the same version. Muskogee still had its ongoing news. The City Council was still making decisions that would impact local residents, there were fires, shootings, car wrecks, all that our readers wanted to know about.
I could understand reacting to the original tragedy, but in the weeks that followed the continued coverage of the bombing reached levels of absurdity. Our editors looked for anything that might possibly, conceivably have something to do with the bombing.
I remember writing one story that was quite legitimate. Ruby Compassi, who lived on Country Club Road was the grandmother of one of the bombing victims, Julie Welch. Julie, a lovely 23-year-old, had majored in Spanish and worked as an interpreter for the Social Security Administration in the Murrah Building. I had a moving conversation with Mrs. Compassi as she told me about her fond memories of her granddaughter, and her hopes for a future that now would never be realized. Julie’s body had not yet been found, and Mrs. Compassi hoped that would happen soon so the family could make arrangements. Julie’s father, Bud Welch, became a prominent spokesman for the victims as the case proceeded.
A stark contrast was another story I was sent on. My editor told me a Muskogee woman had some relatives who once had lived in Oklahoma City, and she thought possibly some of them might have been in the building when it exploded. A photographer and I went to see the woman, who didn’t appear to have a very firm grip on reality. She wasn’t certain when, or if, the relatives had lived in Oklahoma City, or where they were at the time. She didn’t know of any business that might have taken them to the Murrah Building on that day, had they lived in Oklahoma City. By that time most of the victims had been recovered and identified, and it was highly unlikely that anyone related to the woman could be among their number.
I went back and told the editor it was a waste of time as the woman was uncertain about anything. It was just as likely her relatives were in Portland, Ore., or Kissimmee, Fla. But I had to write the story because of the extremely slight possibility of a connection, we were so obsessed with localizing the bombing story.
Pack journalism has devolved into the mentality of a group of kids, where each has to have something just because the other does. Yes, it’s important to localize a major story if that can be done. But it’s hardly valuable to our readers to become contortionists, stretching to make something local when there is no relevant connection. We can better serve them by focusing our energy on issues closer to home that have more connection to their lives, and letting them learn about other stories from media sources in those areas. That becomes particularly important with the continuing shrinkage of local news staffs and the inability to give local news the coverage it deserves.

One thought on “Pack journalism

  1. I’m disappointed that today, CNN and Fox cover the very same news. There is no ‘different tack’ of what would be of interest. Two sides of one coin. I think that these news venues should think about the ramifications of their reporting. And they should diversify the coverage. Instead of exploring the same tidbits over and over, it would be good to cover different aspects and angles of news.

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