Covering tragedy: Emerging lessons from the Virginia Tech Killings

BlogHer Original Post

In my day job, I'm a journalism educator. When a horrific event such as Monday's massacre at Virginia Tech occurs, I'm looking for the lessons I can share with my students, and ways to make sure that I am modeling good professional practice for them.

With that in mind, I've been scouring the web and talking to colleagues about how this story should be covered, pitfalls to avoid, and lessons for the future. Here are some issues, advice, and story angles that I've come across so far:

1. Citizen journalists need to know basic safety rules for covering a dangerous story. As Mac Slocum notes in this discussion board post from the Online Journalism Review, the student who shot the camera phone video that's been playing on CNN and elsewhere ad infinitum ran toward the police, rather than taking cover. As the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma warns,

"Like police, firefighters, paramedics and others, journalists often arrive on the scene minutes after disaster strikes. Like other first responders, journalists should be mindful of their own safety."

2. Watch the headlines. This one comes from one of my students. She says she's been getting her news about the tragedy from Va Tech student newspaper website because the writing is "more sensitive, less sensational," adding:

I mean, just look at their title: "Heartache: 32 Fallen." Big difference from "Carnage on Campus," which I saw on The Trenton Times. That was disturbing -- when I hear carnage, I think of animals, not college students.

3. Be careful about the "myths" that can become part of the narrative in a story like this one. Dave Cullen, a Dart Center Fellow, covered the 1999 Columbine shootings, and found that "nearly everything we know about it is wrong."

According to Cullen, such widely-reported items that the shooters at Columbine were outcasts, that there was a shadowy "Trenchcoat Mafia," and that they were "targeting jocks," have more to do with reporters' preconceptions than with the facts. In fact, Cullen reported in this 2004 story on the fifth anniversary of that tragedy, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were acting out their deep psychiatric problems.

And then Cullen added this point, which really got me thinking:

An authoritative joint report by the Secret Service and Dept. of Education on school shooters found "there is no accurate or useful 'profile' of attackers." Yet the media will construct a profile this week anyway, and try to fit this attacker to it. We should resist, but also understand that there are some key characteristics, and there are several different profiles.

That had me wondering about the right way to use this widely-referenced study conducted by the New York Times in 2000. My concern is that journalists might take the fragmentary information that has been emerging about Cho Seung-Hui, the man identified as the shooter at Virginia Tech, pick out the details that match the NY Times study, and produce a pat analysis of Cho and his motives.

4.Be careful about the experts you choose to interview. The Dart Center Fellows raised this issue, but I had been thinking about it already, especially when I saw anti-videogame activist Jack Thompson bloviating on television about how the killer probably played a lot of Grand Theft Auto. The killer hadn't even been identified, so clearly Thompson was pushing his agenda. CNet published a condemnation and refutation of Thompson's remarks, but the real question is whether he was a legitimate source on the story in the first place. That brings up a corollary, below.

5.Try to stay independent of others' political, and personal agendas. Bernie at PopPolitics worries that the Jack Thompsons in this story will sway the debate away from the issue of guns in favor of scapegoating popular culture. After citing research that found that the news coverage of Columbine over-covered the games Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris played and under-covered how they got the arsenal they used to kill:

I certainly believe that popular culture has the power to influence both ideas and behavior. That's one way to express the premise of PopPolitics, in fact. But the use of popular culture in relationship to incidents of gun violence always seems like a distraction to me.

6. Campus safety issues have their own complexity Nearly every aspect of this story has a different twist because it happened on a college campus.

Take, for example, the debate over gun laws that has been rekindled by Monday's events, as BlogHer CE Melinda Casino noted. Andrew Cohen at Katie & Co. has a point when he we ought to defer the political arguments at least until the initial shock and grief has subsided, and the Virginia Tech community has had a chance to bury its dead and tend to its wounded.

But when that debate resumes, keep in mind that the issue of guns on campus has its own particular nuances, as Cohen points out:

If nothing else, let us hope that the tragedy at Virginia Tech at least fosters a new national conversation about guns on campus. That conversation ought to begin not in Virginia but in Utah, where last fall the Supreme Court of Utah rejected an attempt by administrators at the University of Utah to ban guns on its campus. The rationale behind that ruling and the potential scope of it are worth reviewing now, if not by Congress than by state legislators around the country.

As information emerges about the shooter's apparent mental health problems, one frequent detail mentioned is that at least one professor tried to get Cho to seek counseling, but was told that under federal privacy laws there was nothing that could be done to compel him to get help. Ironically, the Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription req.) ran an article in Monday's edition noting that Virginia recently passed a law prohibiting schools from expelling students who try to commit suicide, adding:

The scope of the campus mental-health crisis is staggering. On the American College Health Association's National College Health Assessment from spring 2006, covering nearly 95,000 students on 117 campuses, 16 percent of the students reported that on at least five occasions during the preceding academic year, they had "felt so depressed it was difficult to function." More than 9 percent had seriously considered suicide, and one in every 100 had attempted suicide in the previous year.

Finally, familiarize yourself with the Clery Act -- the law that sets the rules that schools have to follow when it comes to disclosing information about campus crime.

7. Watch out for the rumor patrol Joy Reid says the conspiracy theories are already circulating. Check out or other Urban Legends sites before passing along rumors. We've already seen how quickly speculation and rumor becomes news: remember those initial reports that the shooter was a Chinese graduate student? Don't be surprise if other "facts" from the early reporting in this story also turn out to be wrong.

8. Be thoughtful about stereotypes. When the initial reporting identified the suspect as an "Asian male," the Asian American Journalists Association felt compelled to remind journalists of the rule that race should only be included in a news story when it is clearly relevant:

There is no evidence at this early point that the race or ethnicity of the suspected gunman has anything to do with the incident, and to include such mention serves only to unfairly portray an entire people.

AAJA took some criticism for its stance, most notably from a former member who accused the group of trying to force the press to "ignore the identity of the shooter" -- a charge that AAJA's president rebutted.

9. Take care of yourself. When 9-11 happened, my students and I worked for more than 12 hours straight running a makeshift news operation that carried local coverage of our campus and community, which is in commuting distance of Ground Zero. I deliberately avoided TV news for the next two weeks, getting all of my information from email and websites. I knew that I could better handle the information in text form than with images and sound added.

Pay attention to your emotional response. It's okay to turn off the television. The Dart Center advises:

• If you witnessed a traumatic scene, find a way to relax within a day or two. If you have a favorite stress-reduction technique (exercise, yoga, art, etc), do it.

• It's common to experience emotional distress in the weeks after witnessing a traumatic event. If the distress doesn't subside over time, however, you ought to consider seeking professional help.

10. Above all, remember that this is a story about people. Be humane when interviewing victims and families. Give people space. Don't ask traumatized people to assign blame -- save that analysis for the experts when there is evidence to examine. And keep in mind that the aftershocks of an event like Monday's run deep and wide.

From Nancy at In This Moment, a personal connection:

I learned this afternoon that one of the people killed in the Virginia Tech massacre was the son of a friend of mine.

The knowledge left me stunned and horrified, because now I don't just picture some abstract person when I think of the families and friends of those who died -- I picture my friend and his wife. I can put a face on suffering, and it chills me....

For Ann at Feminist Law Professors, an old wound reopened:

There was an on campus shooting at my university while I was a student....

As for me, for few hours on Monday, I was a frightened 9-year-old again, glued to my television as Charles Whitman picked off hi s victims from a tower at the University of Texas.

Whatever the reactions, and whoever we are, it is the human response that must be remembered, protected and honored. As with physicians, the cardinal rule for journalists and bloggers covering a tragedy of this dimension should be, "First, do no harm."


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