HATING THE MEDIA WHEN YOU SHOULDN'T

BLACKSBURG, Va. —- The sign in the downtown store that sells Virginia Tech paraphernalia was quite clear: "No Media, Please."

It's a fair response to the media onslaught that was expected for the one-year anniversary of the most deadly campus shooting in history. On April 16, 2007, a sociopath gunned down 32 students and then took his own life. Within hours, hordes of news media were sticking microphones, cameras and notebooks into the faces of shell-shocked students.

But that sign in the store is also not fair.

The media arrives at such events to document what happened and share it with the rest of the world, as NPR did. The reporters and photographers are not there as ghouls or scavengers to feed on pain or exploit grief — though to some it undoubtedly feels that way.

In one significant respect, the media cover tragedies to ensure that no one ever forgets the horror that's happened. Their immediate role is to tell the story, but it is also journalists who write the first draft of history. And then in the decades to come, historians often study the coverage.

In 2002, I co-authored a book, Running Toward Danger, about how journalists covered 9-11. One photographer told of a New York policeman yelling at him for taking pictures of ash-covered people making their way through the wreckage. After the photographer explained that he felt a sacred obligation to document what occurred so people would always remember, the policeman helped him.

Last week, when talking to Virginia Tech students I found many still miffed at the media but without giving much thought to the key role the press play in our society.

There is something else the 20 students I spoke to in an honor's class helping to archive massacre material also did not understand about the press: Covering a story like Virginia Tech takes a psychological toll on journalists as well. Reporters aren't automatons. They are parents, spouses and siblings. They are also professionals parachuting in to do a job, usually on a tight deadline.

NPR sent eight people to campus a year ago, and for each, it was a tough assignment. Only correspondent Adam Hochberg returned for the anniversary.

NPR's Rachel Martin, now a host of a Bryant Park Project, prides herself on connecting with people she interviews.

But she didn't have time to build rapport "when you're standing in the middle of campus and you need to find a crying person and you need to do it in about 20 minutes so you can file your piece," she said, in recalling the Virginia Tech story. "When you are doing this, it is essential to shut down emotionally. Everything I knew about being courteous and polite and empathetic when talking with victims had to get thrown out the window in order to get the job done. I had a hard time with that."

It was the same for NPR producer Marisa Penaloza.

"I shut out everything else but the task at hand," said Penaloza. "It's a self-preserving mechanism that helps me keep going. I guess knowing that I'll come out of the situation when my assignment ends to a loving family and my morning run helps me get through it. I feel a huge responsibility to NPR listeners but also to the subjects. When people have just gone through tragedy, I want to make sure that I'm not in any way affecting their grieving."

All Things Considered host, Melissa Block also felt uncomfortable being part of the media throng that numbered in the hundreds. She put on "emotional blinders" while reporting — pumped up on "Big Story" adrenaline.

"Invariably these stories involve approaching people consumed with grief, asking them to share highly intimate feelings about pain and loss," said Block. "My first impulse tends to be on the order of NO NO NO NO! I consider myself a private person and my instinct is to honor the privacy of others."

But she couldn't do that in Blacksburg. She had deadlines. She needed to get stories done, and listeners wanted to hear them.

I covered the massacre as a stringer for the New York Times.

All week, I took notes on story after story of heroism and heartbreak, and soon I became inured in a way that embarrassed me. I knew I was simply in "reporter mode," where you do anything to get the quote or the story. I was as guilty as the next reporter of using Facebook or pseudo empathetic emails to plead for interviews.

By the Saturday of that week, I was in a crowd on a school football field covering freshman Emily Hilscher's outdoor memorial service. It was a crisp spring day under a blazing sun. Speakers gushed about Emily, a quirky 18-year-old thrilled to be at Virginia Tech who loved horses and intended to become a veterinarian.

"She'd rather wear jeans than a dress, drive a truck than a sports car, clean a stall than her room, visit the stable than the mall," said her older sister.

I sat there listening and tried to feel something, shocked that I, someone who cries at telephone commercials, felt numb. The excitement I'd felt at the beginning of the week had caught up with me, along with the magnitude of what had happened.

It was days later, after I was home, that I was overcome with emotion for all I had seen and heard — and not felt — for six days in Blacksburg. The words of Emily's mother haunted me. Emily was protective of her mother, and as the last child to go to college, she worried about her mother being lonely. Early every morning, Emily would Instant Message her mom, encouraging her to have a nice day.

But a year ago, Emily was killed in her dorm shortly after 7 a.m. "I knew something was wrong on Monday morning when nothing popped up on Instant Message," her mother said at the service.

A year later, I sometimes still think about Emily's mother, knowing that each morning is another without an Instant Message.

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Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Life is not fair. It is very precious.

The "winners" write history. Corrections, if at all, are on the back pages of our papers.

When there is domestic trauma, the press goes into post disaster blitz, and we get inundated with the same story over and over. Your report has to look for someone that is crying; that is objective?

How many people were killed in Iraq the week of Virginia Tech? How many people died violently in Iraq, the Congo, or in U.S. streets this week? How many South East Asians were killed during the Vietnam War? The media ignores some people's plight.

I am sorry for the people of Virginia Tech; it was a tragedy.

Why don't the listeners on NPR elect the ombudsman?

Sent by andrew hennessy | 7:10 PM | 4-21-2008

The reports on the "10%" in the Penn. primary are inaccurate and are being rounded up to inflate a candidacy. Please report these accurately. The main stream media has promoted a lot of inaacurrate information on behalf of a U.S. Presidential candidate who is the wife of a former President. It is offensive and creates mistrust of the media.

Sent by Jennifer Markens | 2:48 PM | 4-23-2008

I believe someone should research Hillary's claim of monies raised by 60,000 individuals since her win in
Pa. Because she said it does not make it so and further no one has investigated her claim. Maybe the majority came from a pac or single supporter. Follow up is essential

Sent by David A Dowding | 11:31 AM | 4-24-2008

Oh my, Yet another self-promoting book plug for the new non-elected Ombudsman. Have you no shame? Why don't you just post everything you've authored and maybe NPR can sell your books in the NPR Shop? That way we can be spared from having to read about your authored works directly from you In your short time at NPR, you have already demonstrated that this is not going to work. Perhaps you should go back to academia, go on your book tours, etc, but please, do not use NPR as a platform for self-promotion. As per you last posting, stop the pitty party, grow a back bone, go to places such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Darfur, Juarez, and many other places where people are desperate to have their story told.

Sent by Marie Daurin | 4:16 PM | 4-28-2008

Your commentary indicates that for the reporter, it's all about me getting my job done. Sorry if you get hurt or pushed around in the process. Truck drivers and policemen should have your attitude when they go out on assignment. You should show all the consideration for them in their heroic work that you expect in doing yours.

Sent by Harry Vanpelt | 5:04 PM | 5-2-2008

It is quite fair for VA Tech folks to say NO MEDIA. Our corporate media is nearly useless in my view, and having them hound someone for a "correct story" for a deadline is not only useless but mean. If I am ever in a tragedy like that, I will start from NO MEDIA position and only issue pre-written statements - so the "news" folks cannot mess it up.

Sent by Susan | 12:07 PM | 5-3-2008

News is too often created rather than reported. Witness small crowds of people protesting, dancing, fists held high, delighting the photographer and reporter on deadline. Only those people on camera are performing --- the individuals in the background may or may not be protesting, and if involved, frequently are doing so in a relatively peaceful manner --- it is for the reporter that emotion is displayed. I understand why the 'NO MEDIA, PLEASE' sign would be placed in a Blacksburg window. The media had a field day with that tragedy, pressing people to comment when no comment was appropriate, then milking the comment to the extreme. Your quote: "when you're standing in the middle of campus and you need to find a crying person and you need to do it in about 20 minutes so you can file your piece," tells what is wrong --- taking advantage of a crying person in order to make her deadline more emotional. 20 years from now will that emotion play a part in the historical facts of the event? Professional reporting? I think not. Do I expect the media to alter its method of sensationalizing? No, your deadline is your excuse.

Sent by alexis jones | 12:43 AM | 5-20-2008

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