WGRZ-TV, the NBC affiliate in Buffalo, has decided not to show video of the ill LeRoy teenagers. This statement was read on air, according to a staffer there:
Regarding the LeRoy story, we want to tell you about something we’ve decided here at 2 On your Side. The doctors involved in this case have said that part of the problem is that the media is constantly replaying video of these girls on the news, and the stress of being on TV, even after the interviews have ended, are making things worse for them. 2 On Your Side not only takes its journalism seriously, we also take seriously our role in our community. And if not showing the teens and their tics will help, then we’re in. We have decided, until or unless some other diagnosis is realized, that we will not be showing the video of the girls and their tics. We will continue to follow the story as we have from the start. We’ll talk to doctors, school administrators, and parents. Now, we can’t control all the media, even our own network’s coverage of this story, but we can control what we do and we have decided to do this because the doctors say its best for the kids in this situation.
It’s unusual, but not without precedent, for news outlets to stop airing video that has already been seen multiple times. After 9/11, many news outlets decided not to air video of the planes crashing into the towers, believing it was gratuitous and disturbing to viewers. After the crash that killed five Fairport teenagers, some news outlets decided to stop airing video of the wreck, because it was upsetting to families and no longer necessary to tell the story.
As for WGRZ’s decision, I can see both sides. On the one hand, the girls themselves are continuing to give television interviews. Their parents, to my knowledge, have not complained to news outlets about use of footage. I am also unaware of any medical professionals directly reaching out to television stations asking them to stop. There is still intense interest in the case. Showing the girls’ distress in context can be helpful to a story. And, as one person said upon learning of this decision, “The genie is out of the bottle.”
On the other hand, we are talking about young girls, some of whom are not old enough to make decisions for themselves. The superintendent of schools and at least one of the doctors who has treated the girls have said the media attention is making the girls’ symptoms worse. There are also questions of sensationalism. The media is treating the illness as a “mystery,” because non-medical professionals and the girls’ families have rejected the conversion disorder diagnosis. There is a place for skepticism, but should journalists take the conversion disorder diagnosis more seriously in the absence of other medical evidence?
This is a fascinating journalism ethics discussion. Sometimes, there is no right or wrong. What are your thoughts about news coverage of the case?