Opinion: Daily Journal

Intentionally Hurtful News Writing

It’s not unusual for the media to be unintentionally insensitive. Sometimes in the rush of a deadline we write a headline or put something in a story that has effects we never predicted or anticipated.

This happened to me once years ago when I had to write a news obit about a community leader who had died right on deadline. While he was a well-known community leader who had done many good things, he also had gotten into some legal trouble about 20 years earlier.

I mentioned that particular scrape with the law pretty high up in the obituary, and, boy, did the community reaction hit like a ton of bricks. “How dare you mention something like that in a man’s obituary?” was the feeling they were communicating to me, often in much harsher terms than that.

I learned a lesson then that I haven’t forgotten: Sometimes the outlook of news people doesn’t coincide with the outlook of the public at large. I always weighed words more carefully after that.

But there’s another journalistic tendency that has become all too common these days, and that’s the intentional use of hurtful news writing to punish someone whom the news outlet considers a political enemy.

That happened recently in the pages of Indy Week, the left-wing Durham-based alternative weekly formerly known as The Independent.

On April 15 Indy Week reporter Jane Porter wrote about a suicide in Stanly County, but she did it not to report the suicide to her readers. Rather, she wanted to imply that State. Rep. Larry Pittman, R-Cabarrus, was somehow complicit in the suicide of his son, Graham Pittman.

She wrote:

Rep. Pittman has championed expanding gun owner rights in the General Assembly and during his campaigns for the District 82 House seat.

Pittman is the primary sponsor of a bill filed Tuesday—the day after his son’s suicide—that would prohibit any local government employees from enforcing federal firearms laws, unless by court order. The bill, titled the Gun
Rights and Privacy Act, would also repeal local prohibitions against carrying concealed weapons, and would streamline the handgun permit while traveling across state lines and “to make the purchase of a firearm more efficient.”

Drawing spurious correlations is not unusual in the agenda-pushing press, but this particularly ghoulish example, published under the headline “Suicide apparent in shooting death of son of pro-gun rights N.C. Rep.” was one for the books.

Maybe the sharp negative response that resulted taught Ms. Porter the same lesson I learned 25 years ago. But knowing the devolution of the left-wing media over the past 20 years, I seriously doubt it.

Jon Ham (@rivlax) is Vice president for Communications of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of
Carolina Journal.