First the Feelings, then the Facts

Within a minute of getting the first bulletin about the London terror bombings, I activated all the modern tools that allow anyone to monitor news coverage from the comfort of their living room.

Avoiding the Loss of Self in the Study of Catastrophe

I thought I was doing my job.

Within a minute of getting the first bulletin about the London terror bombings, I activated all the modern tools that allow anyone to monitor news coverage from the comfort of their living room: I turned on my RSS reader, cranked up the BBC’s streaming audio, turned on the television, checked a few UK-based blogs, and began a frenzy of radio, television, and Internet browsing. Streaming technology brought it home in virtually real-time.

In the first four hours, the only moment of disconnectedness was when Molly, my 7-year-old daughter, walked into my office. I slammed my hand down on the remote so she wouldn’t see the picture of the man with the bloody face. After I chased her out, I ground out some e-mails to Dart Center colleagues. Who knew what? Was Mark Brayne alright? How many casualties? How was it being covered?

This morning I looked back at some of those early e-mails. And while I don’t regret anything I wrote—I think I did see early evidence of what turned out to be remarkably restrained and responsible reporting by the British press—I can also see that something more personal was going on.

Rather than sit quietly for a moment and take in the magnitude, the horror, of what was still happening, rather than be a human being empathizing with people in pain, I slipped almost too effortlessly into the secure pose of analyst. And what do analysts do in crises? They talk to other analysts.

The problem is that I effectively cheated myself out of experiencing and perhaps even learning from my own feelings of sadness and anger. In fact, I think I knew precisely the message I was sending myself: The more punditry, the less pain. The more facts, the less fear.

It is not that the observations blazing across the Internet were without merit. Quite the contrary, many of us are both veterans of other similar events and scholars and journalists who struggle to understand the dynamics of how these episodes unfold. We want to learn things about how journalists work that that can be applied when the next explosion comes.

But the lesson I am stuck with is that analysis isn’t worth a hill of beans if it comes from a human wire-service machine rather than a flesh-and-blood human. And I still regret cranking up the Internet before I even allowed my gaze to settle for even a few moments on that bloody face and feel the magnitude of what had happened. After all, I had no official responsibility that required clinical distance. What I had was a serious case of anxiety!

Of course, eventually serious analysis is important. And within several days, some provocative observations had been circulated by Dart Center colleagues Susan Moeller, Bruce Shapiro, Frank Ochberg, and Mark Brayne. It did look like the coverage in the UK was focusing on confirmed facts more than on carnage. The Scotland Yard press conferences with police officials were striking in their sober analysis. The political posturing that is second nature to a New Yorker—in which every person whose name has ever appeared on a ballot is out in front of the camera competing for the “most indignant” prize—seemed absent.

And when the discussion turned to the need for some comparison of the New York, Madrid, and London experiences, Susan Moeller in particular directed us to a host of variables and methodological issues that should be considered in any serious cross-cultural comparisons of journalistic practice, including the need to involve people from within each culture. Her suggestions about some of the cultural differences in newsgathering practices were right on target. Some provocative research may result.

But while I’d love to provide whatever help and advice I can, I know that the lesson I learned that morning will now be paramount: First the emotion, then the e-mail. First the feeling, then the facts. First the pain, then the plans.