Thursday, December 27, 2012

When the Media Passes Judgment ...

Part of being human is the capacity for making judgments.  For better or worse, whether it's right or wrong, all human beings judge.  The best among us look at all the facts and don't come to conclusions about other people, social issues, or whatever based solely on emotion.

I am as guilty of making knee-jerk judgments as anybody, and I have a tendency to give more credence to emotion than I perhaps should.  I also have a tendency to never forget a wrong that has been done to those I love.  I can (and do) forgive, but I never forget, and you'd better believe that past history plays a role in how I view a person or a social issue or a given situation.

I think everybody has their own set of rules, their own moral compass, to use a tired old expression.  That's our right and privilege as human beings, and I'd be shocked if any two compasses were 100% synchronized.  I'm good with that.

What bothers me, though, is when we are told what our morals and values should be...and even more so when we, lemming-like, follow those directions without thinking about them for ourselves and applying our own set of beliefs.

And it is especially deplorable when it's the media doing the judging.

This is a picture of Elizabeth "Lizzi" Marriott, a first-year student at the University of New Hampshire.

When Lizzi Marriott was reported missing on a Tuesday in October, New Hampshire's lone news station went crazy reporting on it.  Lizzi's family was making posters, volunteers were searching, she was a "good kid", a marine biology major, a Harry Potter fan, basically the quintessential "girl next door".  Daily updates of the search for Lizzi focused on what a tragedy it was, how her family was holding out hope, the volunteer turnout to look for her.

On Friday night, police began searching the waters off of Peirce Island in Portsmouth.  The heroics of the rescue team, the fact that evidence had in fact been discovered and was being acted upon, and, yes, the continued tragedy of Lizzi's absence were all over the news.

On Saturday, October 13th, 30-year-old Seth Mazzaglia was arrested and charged with second-degree murder.  New Hampshire news venues once again exploded; after all, now there was a clear-cut "bad guy".  Mazzaglia was described as an odd duck, a loner, a martial arts experts, a man with a college degree in theatre (and the media took pains to find and quote people as saying a pretty crappy actor).

Rumbles of a Fifty Shades of Grey-esque encounter gone terribly wrong began to circulate, although good old WMUR didn't report on this.  Instead, they quickly tapered off coverage of Lizzi Marriott over the course of a few days, briefly mentioning that the search continued for her body but essentially eliminating any coverage of Lizzi as a person.

If you wanted details on the sexual bondage aspects of the case, you could find them on national sites, but New Hampshire's media had pretty much washed its hands of Lizzi Marriott...and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to deduce that someone made a decision that her participation in what many would consider a deviant sex act placed some of the blame for her death on Lizzi's own shoulders.  

Does the fact that Lizzi Marriott was "either strangled or suffocated" by Seth Mazzaglia when S&M sex went too far change the fact that her death was a tragedy?  Does it make her any less dead?  Does her family feel any less pain?

Apparently the "murder victim" line blurs when the saga twists in a direction that will raise the "morals and values" hackles on the necks of some viewers.

Better to just let Lizzi Marriott disappear into the woodwork.

And that is the media passing silent judgment on Lizzi Marriott, which is terribly wrong.

On Christmas Eve, 19-year-old Kat McDonough was arrested on charges connected to Lizzi Marriott's disappearance.  Gone were the personal anecdotes about the young woman who'd volunteered with marine animals and was loved by friends and family in her hometown.

Instead, WMUR's reference to Lizzi Marriott was formal and technical.

A second arrest has been made in the disappearance and death of a University of New Hampshire student.
Michael A. Delaney, New Hampshire attorney general, Dover Police Chief Anthony F. Colarusso Jr., and Col. Robert C. Quinn of the New Hampshire State Police made the announcement on Monday. The officials said that Kathryn McDonough, 19, of Portsmouth, was arrested Monday and charged with two felony counts in connection with the disappearance and death of Elizabeth "Lizzi" Marriott, 19, whose body has not been found.

If you're interested in the basic details, Kat McDonough was evidently dating Seth Mazzaglia.  She and Lizzi Marriott worked together at a nearby Target store and were friends.  Lizzi had plans with McDonough the night she disappeared, and we can infer that those plans involved sexual activity that was more likely than not a bondage-based ménage a trois where something went terribly wrong.

We know that a young woman died when she'd barely had time to experience and enjoy life as an adult.

If you want to judge Lizzi Marriott's sex life, that is your prerogative.  After all, when you put the facts of this sad story into the matrix of your own moral compass, you'll more likely than not feel a little bit differently than if Lizzi had, say, been savagely stabbed by a stranger while walking to class.

What is not okay with me, though, is how the media coverage passed its own judgment.  It is their job to report the news, the facts.  If news outlets had matter-of-factly reported on Lizzi Marriott's disappearance in a hands-off manner from the start and continued in this vein as less-than-savory details emerged, that would be one thing.

What they did, though, is put her into the hearts of viewers initially.  We heard wonderful, personal, touching anecdotes about Lizzi Marriott as a person, as a volunteer, as a hardworking college student.  That angle disappeared as suddenly and shockingly as Lizzi herself, though, when it came to light that she had evidently made a choice to participate in a potentially deadly activity.

And that is just wrong.

Passing judgment is something human beings will always do, no matter what.  However, in the case of Lizzi Marriott, the media took away the rights of viewers to think about what happened and apply it to their own sliding scale of morality.  It skewed our perception of a young woman, first by putting her on a pedestal as "Girl Next Door of the Year, 2012" and then by coldly and callously knocking it away because she let a guy tie her up and choke her during sex.

This post is not about my opinions on Lizzi Marriott and the circumstances leading to her death, although I should probably mention that my older daughter is a college freshman, which makes the young woman more personally accessible to me than she might be to others.      

Instead, it is about the concept of passing judgment.  Do you agree that it's an integral part of being human, or am I way off base there?  What elements should be involved in judgments you make, even if you never say them aloud to anyone?  And does the media have the right to push the morals and values of its parent company when allegedly reporting news?

I'm curious to see what people think about this one ...   

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