Should media have been low-keyed about SteelStacks climber?
Last weekend, a man climbed to the top of the 280-foot tall Bethlehem SteelStacks blast furnaces and stayed there for nearly 21 hours until police could coax him down.
The startling event led regional telecasts and was front and center on social media for a good part of that time.
David Wallace, 25, of Mertztown, Berks County, has been charged with risking a catastrophe, a felony, and recklessly endangering another person and defiant trespass, misdemeanors.
According to Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli, however, there is a good chance that these charges may be dropped if it is determined that Wallace is mentally disturbed.
He was taken to St. Luke’s Hospital for evaluation. Bethlehem Police Chief Mark DiLuzio said police are continuing to investigate why Wallace scaled an 8-foot-high fence to get access to the tower. DiLuzio believes the man had suicidal tendencies.
A Friday night concert and other events at the SteelStacks venue were either canceled or postponed.
Despite the fact that police were able to identify the man through a plea on social media, critics said that too much public attention was given to the episode, which could inspire other unstable people to do the same.
This is a periodic criticism that has gotten some traction in recent years. Some news media officials have adopted policies to limit mentioning the names of those involved in publicity stunts to deprive them of the exposure that they crave.
Many media officials have done a lot of soul-searching after coverage of these types of events. They are conflicted by the need to fulfill their mission to provide the public with full news coverage vs. their concern that in doing their job they will inspire others to follow suit.
Journalists have always been told to provide the who, what, where, when, why and how of a news story. It is disclosure of the “why” and “how” that is generally most problematic.
In the SteelStacks story, the public wants to know what motivated Wallace to do what he did. In providing this information, will the news media be giving the event more attention and, possibly unwittingly, inspiring other people to seek similar attention-grabbing stunts?
The media already are self-censors, most notably when it comes to suicides, particularly teen suicides. In an obituary, if you read that an 18-year-old died “unexpectedly,” but without any additional information, the reader is left to wonder whether it was because of a disease, accident, suicide or something else.
The media avoid sensationalizing suicides and suicide attempts. In fact they hardly ever even make the news columns unless the person is a public figure or unless committed in a public place that attracts a great deal of attention, as was the case at SteelStacks.
Dr. Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina, said imagined events are more likely to be carried out in real life. If the media provide a blueprint on how an event was carried out, it could be a motivating factor for copycat adolescents or young adults, especially if there are mental health issues already afflicting the person, she said.
“The shock value is part of the goal — and the higher the shock value, the higher the media coverage, which fuels interest in the shooter and creates a whirlwind of attention and spectacle,” Tufekci said.
In addition to the narrative of the SteelStacks episode, there was dramatic photo and broadcast coverage, including of the climber with outstretched hands and pumping his fists heavenward.
Police posted a close-up photo of his face on social media to try to identify him. It worked. Wallace’s family drove from out-of-state and helped the police with information.
The surreal event was witnessed by about 1,500 concertgoers who were at SteelStacks for a free concert and who watched the action from the grass and lawn chairs. Some passers-by shouted encouragement or obscenities at the man.
I have a real problem with obscuring facts or not reporting certain information because it might be unsettling or controversial. This is an example of self-censorship. Our job as journalists involves an unwritten contract with our readers to present information as fully and completely as we know it. Let them decide how they want to digest it. Self-censorship compromises objectivity and a commitment to the truth.
By Bruce Frassinelli | firstname.lastname@example.org