Media Goes Way Too Far in Missing Child Case

Jeanne Sager
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milly dowlingSome days, it's embarrassing to be roped into the loose-fitting term "media." And the top story out of England this morning should be making every journalist here in the States shudder. The News of the World did the impossible. They took the story of Milly Dowler, a 13-year-old who went missing on her way home from school, only to turn up murdered six months later, and actually made it more disturbing with their story-hunting antics.

According to an exhaustive investigation by The Guardian that's the talk of the UK this week, the News of the World managed to magnify Milly Dowler's parents' hurt tenfold. On the hunt for a "good story," they hired a private investigator to hack into her voicemail and listen to messages so they could use them for their story. Then, when the mailbox was full, they got annoyed that they didn’t have enough “dirt” for their stories, so they deleted some to make room for more -- thereby screwing with the police looking for her AND making her parents think Milly was still alive and simply deleting her old messages.

A lot of what they did was illegal, which is the subject of the current investigation, but can we talk about morality here? A journalist's job is to report the story as is. It's not to "make" the story. It's to come at an issue without bias, without an agenda -- in this case, creating the juiciest story on the block.

Journalists don't get to be regular human beings. Difficult to say, but the folks at the News of the World had no loyalty to the Dowler family. Their job isn't to comfort them. You don't go into a career in media if you want to make friends.

Paparazzi are trying to get their picture because it's their job. Reporters are trying to write about scandals because it's their job. It makes you unpopular -- trust me, I'm all too aware of the risks. Before I became a blogger (which is quite different from traditional journalism), I spent a decade in traditional journalism.

There's nothing quite like writing the story of a car accident when you know the driver's entire family is going to hate you for publishing it. They'll leave you nasty messages. They'll spread vile rumors. But you sleep at night knowing that you wrote an accurate portrayal of what happened, that you didn't create the story, that you didn't put that drink in the drunk driver's hand, that you stuck with "just the facts" and nothing more. You take comfort in knowing that your job had a purpose: to provide the public with the story they needed to know, all based on publicly available information to boot.

It's when you walk past the facts that you lose your humanity, when you try to create a story that you aren't just in an unpopular profession but one without purpose. What the folks at News of the World did had no purpose, no readership was being served by a story created out of falsehoods. And the aftereffects were truly devastating. In essence, the Dowlers were being toyed with, tortured by the thought that their child was out there, just beyond their grasp.

As a parent, I have thought often that nothing could possibly top the anguish of dealing with your child missing, only to find out she's dead. But what was done here topped that and then some. What was done here was inhumane. What was done here is proof that not all media is created equal.

What do you think of this case?


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