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.