Journalism and Tragedy
In times of crisis, we demand the best from the people on the front lines of the story. The cops. The paramedics, doctors, and nurses. The teachers. We should expect no less from the people telling those stories. The journalists.
During coverage of the carnage at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., I talked with a veteran journalist who was doing her best and hoping it was enough.
"It’s the first time in my life I find the English language to be limited," Suzanne McCarroll, a reporter at KCNC-TV in Denver, told me, "[there are] no words poignant enough for what I’ve witnessed the last few days."
McCarroll’s responsibility was to tell meaningful, accurate, and fair stories that conveyed the depth and breadth of this tragedy. Like other reporters, she recounted the horror and the heroism, the anguish and the anger. And, I imagine, she and other journalists wept in their hearts and perhaps cried openly while going about their work. They had a duty to perform, though none would have chosen such a horrible test of journalistic skills.
Even though there is a tendency to switch to auto pilot on stories such as these, there is nothing simple about the role and responsibility of the journalist. It’s only natural for journalists to feel frustrated and disappointed in their ability to truly capture the multiple dimensions of this chapter in the continuing account of our country’s academic killing fields. The magnitude of the reporting challenge is profound: to provide a powerful snapshot of the slaughter of innocents on a spring day; to describe the complexity and contention surrounding societal values, gun control, race relations, juvenile justice, parental responsibility, and so much more.
We watched and listened and read about what was happening in Littleton, just as we did when the sirens screamed in Paducah and Pearl, in Springfield and Jonesboro. We hugged our children, debated our co-workers, prayed with our congregations, and pondered privately.
We reached for reasons. We wondered why. We searched for solutions.
Our knowledge, our emotions, and our reactions are a product of the information we consume. Journalism links us to this terrible incident and the issues embedded within it. The reports from Colorado, sometimes jarringly instantaneous and sometimes painfully slow, gave us pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle. While our natural desire is for hard facts, objective truth, and clear meaning, the reality is much different. Facts are often contradictory in the chaos. Truth emerges slowly, over time, and seldom with finality. Meaning is elusive and strongly reflects differing personal beliefs.
But, none of that should allow journalists and their news organizations to sidestep professional responsibility. Just as we hold others–law enforcement officers, medical personnel, teachers, and crisis counselors–accountable for their actions at tough times, we expect the news media to be at their very best as well.
To be sure, there were elements of the news coverage that measured up well. There were powerfully written accounts of the heroism of teachers and students amid the terror in the hallways and classrooms of Columbine High. There were compelling, compassionate interviews with students and parents that, while inescapably intrusive, were respectful and meaningful. There were thoughtfully crafted stories exploring the intolerance of differences and the consequences that occur, issues that extend to virtually every community in our nation.
There were sensitive, powerful photographs and real-time broadcasts that brought us to the memorial services, allowing us to share in the communal grieving and the recovery process. There were thoughtful and provocative radio commentaries and op-ed essays from teen-agers and scholars that test our assumptions and open our minds. There were heart-wrenching reports that took us to community gatherings in Jonesboro, Ark.–last year’s focal point–where healing and anger, forgiveness and frustration all still boil in the same pot.
The best of journalism takes people to places and events where they need to be. It gives people information and insight needed to process what is happening, even if it produces more questions than answers in the short run, even if it upsets us and shakes our foundations.
In the face of public cynicism about our motives and criticism of our style–some of it justified–journalism must continue fulfilling its societal duty as informer, educator, and connector. The challenge, of course, is that we must become better at what we do. We must set higher standards, improve our craft skills, sharpen our judgments, and bring greater expertise to the reporting.
Inevitably, in stories of this magnitude, journalism not only shines spotlights, but also becomes an appropriate object of scrutiny. And our shortcomings and weaknesses can be glaring. Most troubling were mistakes made in some live television broadcasts in the first hours of the crisis. Since it was possible that the gunmen had access to television coverage, it was extremely risky to show the escape routes students were using to run from the school, and to show the movements of the police SWAT teams as they surrounded and entered the building. It was also very dangerous to broadcast live the cellular phone conversation from the student who called a television station while trapped in the school. These were bad coverage decisions that jeopardized the safety of students, staff, and law enforcement officers. Other journalistic and ethical lapses included reports that wandered into unwarranted speculation and a few interviews that exploited victims at their most vulnerable moments.
These errors in judgment remind us how important it is to have sound operating procedures, practical guidelines, and well-oiled processes for decision-making and action.
We must develop the individual ability and the organizational culture that produce excellence. We must be at our best on the most difficult of assignments. Anything less is unacceptable.
As journalists, we will still struggle mightily to find the right words to ask the questions and to tell the stories at times like these. But, if we care deeply about the people and the issues we are covering, and if we care deeply about the quality of what we do, our work can honor our duty to society.