Conversation: Tragedy and the Media

In this video from the 2011 Dart Center workshop "Out of the Shadows: Reporting on Intimate Partner Violence," Sacha Pfeiffer interviews Malcolm Astley about the media coverage of the murder of his daughter, Lauren Astley.

Reporter Sacha Pfeiffer from WBUR, Boston, MA and Malcolm L. Astley Ed.D. discuss violence, tragedy and the role of the media. Malcolm Astley is the father of Lauren Astley who in July 2011 was murdered by her former boyfriend. Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, introduces the discussion.

This video is from a two-day workshop held at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in October, 2011, made possible by generous funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation: "Out of the Shadows: Reporting on Intimate Partner Violence."


I feel privileged and honored to have the chance to talk with you today, to those with whom in general I am only on the receiving end of a one way conversation with the tide of your writings and media productions coming for the most part straight at me.  It is great for a minute to be working with a two way path instead of one way.

It is important to note just where you are finding us as you tread carefully and with determination into the stories like my daughter’s murder, a much too early death at age 18, a tumbling of the earth off of its axis for our family and community in the death of a former girl friend and the imprisonment of a former boyfriend, both of whom in adult’s eyes had potentially lovely, if uncertain, paths ahead.

In Standing on the Edge, a book about Meg Tipper’s intense path of grief and recovery after the loss of her own young adult daughter, Maggie, Ms. Tipper notes some strong parallels between the waves of pain of birth giving and that of the letting go of grieving.  Men are always slightly abashed at being so separate from these hard matters, but men can sometimes see what women are seeing, and I can attest to the waves of pain, so similar in the forces I witnessed in my Lauren’s determined Mother through my darling daughter’s birth, her appearance agonizingly slow in the literal sense, she finally arriving with wonderful wetness and a wide eyed openness to her surroundings and the life path to come.  Meg Tipper writes of “this strange circle, the labor to bring my child into the world and the labor to see her out.”  You as journalists tend to catch us in the intense, shocking beginnings of seeing our children out, with great labor.  We are numb, and reaching out for anchors to steady us or, hunkering down and looking inward, and all the variations in between.

I so appreciate and admire the rich potentials of journalism to help us as communities, societies, nations and species, gain perspective on just what is happening before us or on top of us or within us.  Journalism in my dreams is the leading edge of the reflective function of our society, the avenue to a bigger picture that can enable us to see the unseen, to work toward understanding how the parts fit together, the better finally to make it all work better.  So, please know how fundamentally glad I am about what you stand to be able to do.

And please, then, tolerate my disappointment in acknowledging how infrequently the news really achieves the goal of being more than news.  What happened is rarely the main focus I am interested in, though of course, it is the starting point and it is a struggle enough to get that right in any kinds of reporting.

But, as you may already know, I tend to be driven more toward trying to understand why it happened, whatever it was, and I hope you will continue to push the line further in your field toward entertaining that question:  Why did it happen?

I know that can lead you toward being accused of many kinds of twistings of facts.  But I urge that you say just what you are doing, reporting or analyzing or interpreting, and go ahead and be open about your assumptions and your deeper efforts to explain, and just go ahead and do it, once you have gotten what happened on the table.  We need more efforts to explain, I think, even if it involves strenuous point and counterpoint discussion to arrive at what makes the most sense.  We do not need to know again and again that a car crashed, but we do need to know more why and what we can do about it.  Perhaps this takes journalism along a dangerous path parallel to activist judges and courts, that of the activist journalist.  I would like some more of that, and think it is legitimate as long as the journalists involved are open about what game they are playing.  And I have noticed numbers of formats are starting to allow for that approach with headings such as, the story behind the story or…

Jackson Katz noting in DVD that the frame of the articles on dramatic violence in focusing on kids’ crimes on kids were ignoring that in fact the perpetrators were not kids but male kids.

A straight faced woman at Lauren’s memorial service noted that the funeral was finally about what every woman fears as she finds herself loving a man.

Go ahead after the presentation of the essential facts.  Tell us you are moving on toward interpretation, toward framing, and then tell us the most meaningful frame or two that you can imagine, that will take us further toward deeper understanding, enlightenment and ideally the power to become more civilized.

I think there is a song or  a number of them entitled, “Love Sucks,” and while I don’t support the use of the word “sucks” in media, I do see how it applies in this situation with the loss of my daughter and her former boyfriend as I knew him.  How can we better support our young people to cope with this strange phenomenon in our species, loving and being loved.  It is lovely and dangerous territory.

What guidelines can we give to our young people that will support them and protect them in this most treacherous arena?  What guidelines can we offer that do not strip individuals of  their dignity and freedom to explore the wondrous and perilous path of love?

Could there be a helpful Lovers’ Bill of Rights and Responsibilities that could provide a helpful framework of reasonable reference points in an enterprise involving torrents of emotion, vulnerability, and impulses and surges to control and dominate so as to possess for security and prizing and not to lose?  Why not?  We have Patients’ Bills of Rights to support and empower those who find themselves with natural if painful and daunting physical ailments and vulnerability, and needing to interact with health care professionals and institutions.

What reference points and guidelines could we provide to young people that might support seeing them through territory that is a source of significant confusion and anguish among children and adults, as well as a source of great personal satisfaction and meaning?

Some possibilities for the wording of  a Young Lover’s Bill of Rights and Responsibilities:

You and others in your age group are likely soon to be coping with an exciting and perverse “infusing capacity,” a capacity for interweaving between two individuals that seems to be biologically built into us, and perhaps other species, a capacity in each individual and in you to infuse yourself sometimes apparently beyond your control into another person’s being, at times to be driven toward a deep connection with your dream of what another individual is, maybe in part even valid and not dream at all.  But the point is that we have a capacity for idolization and connection with other individuals that can lead to our giving up any sense of proportion or reality regarding that individual’s value to us or our own value without them.  When we fall in love, and the operative word is “fall,”  thus losing control and solid anchor points and away from reason, we move into a dependent and vulnerable state in relation to the other person.

Such a state may be brief, and we may quickly become disillusioned, key word here being “illusion,” and escape from a distorted illusion of that person which made them invaluable in our eyes and made us prey for them in terms of our esteem being locked into their valuing of us.

A Lovers’ Bill of Rights and Responsibilities would assert:

Each party within a loving relationship acknowledges that they are coping with powerful forces of affiliation and idealization that can cause distortion and vulnerability as to the personal value of each person in the relationship.

Each party within a loving relationship needs to assume responsibility for being in charge of the powerful emotions involved, painful and driving as these emotions might be, responsibility toward taking no action in regard to those powerful emotions that could lead to harm for either party.

Each party within a loving relationship understands that the painful side of the affiliative drive and power in each of us means that within all relationships, endings are likely and terribly threatening to each person’s sense of personal worth.  When you experience a “break up,” you are likely to experience a sense of deep grief, loss of self worth, despair, hopelessness and anger, or your former partner will.  You need to manage these painful responses and also understand that they are natural and will pass with time.  You need to commit to allowing for time to pass and to not acting on the resulting feelings that your partner somehow betrayed you or let you down or did something wrong or that you did something wrong or that someone must pay for the losses involved.  Each person needs to commit to accepting the fact that many relationships do not work simply because two people do not fit well together at a given time.  Each person is obligated to honor each other person for just being a person and allow the other person to go on to pursue a better fit with someone else.  This is not easy, but vital to the well being of all people, you included.

Each person needs to examine related historical experiences in his or her own life where there was the loss, partial or complete, of another important person, place, idea, or animal in his or her past.  Knowing just how those experiences had an impact on the self can help the individual in planning to cope with other losses in the present and future.  Each person needs to commit to developing means of coping with the on-going human process of change and loss and gain that is the hard and exciting path of human activity.