Columbine Chronicler on Tucson Advises: "Don't Rush the Healing"
You're poised to report or produce the next story on the Arizona shooting. The words "healing" and "move on" lurk around the edges of your brain.
Resist that impulse.
Who says it's the media's job to be a cheerleader for closure?
That's Dave Cullen's argument in Don't Rush the Healing, a smart opinion piece posted today on AOL News.
"The biggest lesson I learned in 10 years covering the massacre at Columbine High School was the pain we collectively inflicted upon the victims with our rush to get them healed," Cullen writes. "It's an admirable goal, and the media takes on the role of cheerleader. We really want these people to get better. It's important for our healing to see they're making it through.
"It rarely occurs to us what a selfish desire that is. It is not healthy to rush them. It's cruel. And pointless. They cannot change their pace if they wanted to. And they don't want to."
Cullen knows a lot about the minefields hidden in the coverage mass tragedy. He reported the Columbine High School massacre as breaking news, then wrote a best-selling book on the subject, including just how much the media got wrong in the days and weeks after the event. In the immediate aftermath of the Tucson shooting Saturday, he wrote an enlightening Dart tipsheet for reporters. He's also written a number of op-eds and has done some thoughtful television commentary.
Next in the story cycle for the Tucson tragedy are the funerals: painful to experience, painful to report and painful for audiences to consume. Compassion fatigue looms – and that makes journalists vulnerable to want to gather quotes with calls for closure and healing.
The best thing local media can do when that occurs, Cullen advises, is give the story a break. And to be realistic about the wrenching experience grief really is. Grief is not like the flu, to be recovered from. It is a deep, daily reality that differs from person to person. And for some, the pain never ends. Grief is a very private experience, one that deserves our discretion and respect.
"Yes, there will be a market for every story you run," Cullen writes. "You will continue getting viewers, hits and eyeballs. But at what cost? The victims will generally hate the extended spotlight. They want to grieve, quietly."
With each mass tragedy, news professionals learn a little more about the reflexes, stereotypes and hypocrisies inherent in a hyperactive media environment.
Maybe this time, we will be a bit less glib about the the pain that that has been visited upon the many people who have been affected by this tragedy: the husband of Gabrielle Giffords; the parents and grandparents and brother of Christina Taylor Green; the parents, brother and fiancee of Gabriel Zimmerman; the wife, children and grandchildren of U.S. District Judge John M. Roll; the families of Phyllis Schenck and Dorothy Morris; the widow of Dorwan Stoddard.
Maybe this time, we will tell their stories – respectfully – to the nation that mourns with them.