Monday, April 16, 2007

Dispassionate Reporting

Thirty-one… now 32 killed at Virginia Tech. Initial “breaking news” headlines emailed and forwarded to my BlackBerry from the New York Times, then the Washington Post and finally the Sacramento Bee reported the number dead at 20 or 21. I received these reports while sitting in a classroom at Sacramento State University - peeking at the screen of my personal digital assistant, surreptitiously answering its silent vibrations. Now, more than two hours later, I finally have occasion to open my laptop to read the full story and it’s worse than I imagined.

It could have gone either way. Initial reports in instances such as this are often inaccurate. When news like this breaks, details are often sketchy; new and updated information is constantly becoming available. I was hoping that the initial reports were wrong - that the death count was too high. As we now know, it went the other way. There are many questions yet to be answered, but the resounding senselessness of it all couldn’t possibly be more pronounced.

Although I haven’t yet reported on a tragedy of this magnitude, I have covered other breaking news and experienced the singleness of purpose that getting the information to print as quickly as possible represents. While in the midst of the event, whether it’s a fire, an accident or a shooting, getting the information out is the reporter’s only job. The gravity of the event, at least for me, doesn’t come into play until after I’ve had a chance to decompress - after the deadlines have been met. While reporting, I simply don’t have time to make any judgments about what it all means, only to report on what it is.

In this instance, I am a news consumer like most everyone else hearing about this calamity today. I am shocked, disgusted, dismayed… and distracted. If I were assigned to this story, all of those emotions would have to be put on hold - it’s all about getting the story out. Like nurses, firefighters, emergency medical technicians and many other professions where a level dispassionate decorum is essential, reporters must be able to disassociate themselves from their story or risk becoming part of it. There is no time to think.

The irony of where I was when I received this terrible news is not lost on me. It could happen anywhere. It did happen anywhere - this time at Virginia Tech. No one is immune to this kind of idiotic violence and there is no defense. Sure the debate regarding gun control and a hundred other acts of second-guessing will shortly ensue, but at the end of the day, we can’t shield ourselves from every nut-case in the great big world. Unfortunately, this sort of insanity will likely be repeated again somewhere, someday. And there will be reporters there to cover it. The moral? Perhaps there is none. Perhaps it’s as simple as appreciating each day like it could be your last. For at least 31 at Virginia Tech, it was.


Natsthename said...

You are so right; we must appreciate every single day we have on this earth. I cannot imagine the horror these kids had to endure today and what lies ahead in their nightmares.

Such a sad, sad thing. What's worse is that on some level we are growing accustomed to hearing news like this. "Not another school shooting." You know?

Michele sent me. Nice to meet you.

awareness said...

it is numbing.....and as natsthename states, we are growing accustomed to these horrendous events.

i feel like we're just surrounded by tragic deaths......whether it's war or senseless crazy people going on a's all senseless.

I don't know how one could report on a story like this by pulling in the emotional reins to report. I agree with is how it needs to be "managed" by a journalist. I just don't think I could do it.

carmilevy said...

I remember oh so clearly the lessons of my j-school profs: be objective, report the facts, leave your emotions out of it, report the news and do not become the news.

Then I covered a fire that killed a child. I reported the facts, just as I had been taught. Filed my reports from the scene and did all the things a radio journalist is supposed to do.

Then, when I was done, I fell in a heap on the sidewalk when I realized what this meant: that a 3 year-old child wouldn't see her fourth birthday.

Then and there I realized that despite our objectively-focused education, we inject pieces of ourselves into our reporting. It's usually subtle, but it's there. We are human after all.

Thank you for sharing a perspective that others rarely see, and that I appreciate so well. Sometimes, I swear we crossed each other's path in a previous life.

Mark said...

Your words hit home for me. I was a reporter in a past career. Less than a year into my first job, a man I had interviewed a few months prior was found dead of gunshot wounds more than a hundred miles away. His truck still sat in a local grocery store parking lot. He had become involved with a married woman via the Internet and the husband could not handle the news.

It was hard enough to stay dispassionate while covering that story, especially since the investigation went on for months.

Shortly after reporting to the scene of an accident, hanging around like a vulture while a woman cried over her dead son, I started thinking maybe that career wasn't for me.

I can't imagine covering a story as tragic as the one at Virginia Tech. The magnitude of all that human loss, such potential in those young people, blasted away in the same amount of time it took me to watch the violent movie The Departed with my wife Saturday night. We shuddered when certain characters were shot.

When I heard the news today, I skipped the shudder and went straight to numbness. Otherwise I couldn't have continued working.

Anonymous said...

I'd taken a journalism class in U. The same semester, I was in creative writing 2. The journalism class never took well and your points here make me consider what my life would be if it had. No, I would not be able to separate the facts from my own perspectives on a daily basis, reporting on "general news" in any city. (now, editorials? *smirk)

This is incredibly tragic, nothing to laugh at and certainly not a topic - in and of itself - to crack jokes at. (My joke there was re: journalism, not this tragic story of Virginia Tech). I think part of that numbing comes from the anticipation that this would not be the last tragedy of its sort. But I'm hard pressed to say I disagree. I only hope that stats like these continue to be incredibly rare. Maybe by the "statistical timeframe" that any other act such as this one occurs, there will have been a resolution discovered and put into effect to make this the last time afterall.

And, as I said at Carmi's - the hardest part is that nothing can take away what's been done. Not even a resolution against future tragedies.

kenju said...

It is all so senseless. I think we should all live our days as if they are our last, and we shouldn't have to hear of a tragedy to remind us of that.

Anonymous said...

I posted about it too. I'm just gobsmacked by the lack of change from our government regarding gun laws. How many more of these will we have to endure before it dawns on the American populace that gun ownership isn't a right. It isn't what the founding fathers pictured, automatic weapons readily available to anyone with a pulse.

ZoeyBella said...

Senseless and sad. It seems every few years something like this happens.

mckay said...

on days like this, i bow my head in sorrow, pray for those involved in the drama, and hug my family close.

i read the news and now i finally tale a moment to say thank you to those who are on the scene and report with professionalism and care.

on days such as this, i don't understand the world, but i take greater care of my own little piece of it.

take care, my friend.

Bobkat said...

Such a tragic thing to happen. We have stricter gun laws here in the UK but I really don't think the answer is as easy as gun control (though it might help). Things are always much more complex than that.

CyberKitten said...

From this side of the pond it does seem as if your very culture is insane.. or at least deeply disturbed in a psychological way. Like bob-kat I don't think that the solution (if there *is* one) is as 'simple' as gun control. The problem - and hence any possible solution is much deeper than that... *much* deeper.

The saddest thing about the whole incident I found was that US observers virtually considered the incident to be expected - even 'normal' in some bizarre sense. Sort of a "It's horrible but what can you do?" attitude.

Casey Kirk said...

i was reading the full coverages of the massacre while i was at school today... and it gave me chills to see the terrified students being pulled out of classrooms... and glancing over to the building next to me made me realize it could have been our school... i cant even begin to fathom the pure terror those students experienced and now must experience everyday at a place that is supposed to be "safe"

Lifelong Learner said...

The sadness hit me today as I read the profiles of the first two victims. Outstanding, giving people who were snuffed out in order to be a person's last word on his life and to cause as much pain as he obviously felt.

I think the sad thing is having to teach our kids how to look out for situations like this. It robs them of innocence, and puts a fear in them that doesn't need to be there. I just wrote about this. I have to lecture some high school girls on personal safety, because they will be going back to the states to live. There is a sense of safety overseas that is not present in the states. Making them aware of how to watch out for bad people has become part of my job, and it just gets me mad.

Anonymous said...

This is a tragedy, Mike. I look at the boy's face plastered all over the news everywhere and I wonder about him.

Was there something that could have been done to avert his spiral into insanity. He is a human being. Somewhere, someone should have reached out and touched his mind, his soul, his being before he lost control.


Anonymous said...

Mike - Well written. I don't think there was a moral either. There will be a lot of hysterics on all sides on the gun debate, and nobody will make any sense until they've calmed down and started thinking rationally again.

Anyways, if you're wondering what happened to that code you posted on my blog, WordPress censored it and it ended up in my spam box. I found it and unspammed it and now it's up on my blog. WordPress has a lot of anti-spam tools built into it, which is good, but also a pain in the ***.

Thanks for your help. I'll get to those links later, for now, I have to help my son with his homework.

Thanks again.

Snaggle Tooth said...

This event has sickened me with it's evil-
It's very easy to picture happening having been to U, n sent both my children off to college, too.
A reporter on CH7 news got too caught-up, when a MA. Mom was sending out a story having not heard from her son yet, then before the end of the program the reporter came back on to state a Chaplain had called in to confirm the woman's son was indeed among the killed, and the reporter began sobbing away just before finishing the script, of course she had a son of her own-

There are times when the best of us get shocked and surprized by our emotions-
just a matter of what and when- Detachment can prove difficult in cases of empathy- reporter or not-