Venkata: The media’s vital art of privacy

It is common courtesy to never blur the line between tragic news and entertainment.

by Uma Venkata

On Jan. 18 in Perris, California, David and Louise Turpin pleaded not guilty to 12 counts of torture incited by the captivity and torture of their thirteen children. The subsequent week or so witnessed flurries of news regarding the horrific crimes conducted by the Turpin couple. In order to avoid recounting them here, I assume the readership is familiar with the case’s further generalities because, gruesome as they were, they found themselves in the news’s most-consumable front lines. 

It was a story of true cruelty that does reasonably belong in the news. The publicized consequences — a 94-year-minimum sentence for the Turpin couple — may discourage someone from committing a similar act, even though, given the personality of such a person, this may be unlikely. The situation’s normal facade reminds the public that some cases that do merit saying something when seeing something, even though it’s astoundingly difficult, to say the least. The victims deserve sympathy, support and respect from the public; a little solidarity can go a long way.

But in all such cases, there can be overexposure. It’s important that all news platforms choose their content responsibly because, for better or worse, it plays a significant role in shaping public opinion. Because of this influence, it is vital for the public’s good that its opinion be well-informed and calm, not hysterical or desensitized enough to consume the pain of others as entertainment. 

I do not believe — or at least, I am not so concerned — that we have reached such a point with the Turpin case. The reasons listed above, among others, largely outweigh the risks inherent in the story’s circulation thus far. The general treatment of the case has been satisfactory to me, mostly because the names and faces of the children remain unavailable to the public. 

Maybe it’s more resistible to preserve their anonymity because there are 13 of them — whereas, in the Casey Anthony case tried in 2011, the strangled toddler’s name and image were plastered across televised news. In this case, the line was crossed from human-interest news to emotional exploitation for the sake of a form of voyeurism. When the family should have been left in peace to grieve, Anthony’s trial was a national fixture. In June of 2011, the New York Times ran an article that HLN host Nancy Grace had generated an identity from airing Anthony’s trial, similar to CNN and Court TV (a reality channel) with the OJ Simpson case in 1995. The flagrant focus and intrusion into the matter was an abuse of power that successfully boosted commercial-interest ratings, without affording routine respect. 

The media are human by being vested in their own interest. The media can improve, and in the meantime, we must also remember to consume news equally responsibly. If we do, those who need to will catch on to leading by example.