Covering School Shootings
I would have been more aggressive in finding people to talk to. And I don’t mean that I would have hounded people into talking. , AI was talking with friends and family of people who were killed, I realized that more often than not they were very happy to tell their loved one’s story. No one blew up at me and the only time someone turned me down was because they were too upset. As long as there is mutual respect, which starts to be built from the moment you contact these relations, there is the potential for great story telling.
I would just stress that in any situation -- but more importantly one like this – it’s important to gather as much information as possible. Your role as a reporter far outweighs your role as a writer. It’s really not about your voice but the voice of the people who were immediately affected. This is something that can be overlooked when a journalist is so close to the tragedy, but something that is so important to remember when telling someone else's story.
The most important thing I kept in mind when reporting for my memorial article was to be empathetic with everyone I interviewed, but at the same time distance myself from them. I do not know what it feels like to lose someone close to me in such a horrific way. It was crucial that I listened to the victim’s friends and families, but didn’t speak to them as if I understood exactly what they were going through.
I found people were more than willing to speak with me about their loved one. They weren’t reluctant or hesitant like I thought they would be, and most were happy to recall memories of their friend.
I will admit that I probably shed at least one if not more tears during all my interviews. Don’t be afraid to cry. Speaking to people who knew the victim brought me closer and made me think about the shooting more than I would have wanted or felt comfortable with, but I stayed focused on my work. I had to keep reminding myself that even though each interview was difficult, I was doing this in honor of someone’s life. I’ve never taken on a story that meant that much to me or to someone else and that kept me motivated and strong throughout the entire process.
As a student journalist, and now as a reporter for a daily newspaper, I take great pride in journalistic ethics and the foundation they provide for quality reporting. It is very important to me to always keep my emotional distance from the subject when I'm working on a story or project.
But April 16, 2007 was different. I still believe the Collegiate Times produced an extremely professional newspaper and provided an immeasurable service to the community, but I know a lot of the staff, including myself, had to realize that it was OK to be upset and personally traumatized while also being a reporter and news provider for the campus.
It’s often hard to balance fair reporting, especially when something affects you on such a personal level. But in the face of that tragedy, there was no getting around it. It’s not like the newspaper could just assign reporters who weren’t affected. Because they all were. The best way I can sum up my approach to stories and obituaries I wrote that week is I had to make myself accept that it was OK to admit to people that I felt their pain. I let my guard down and approached people by saying, “I am distraught and am having trouble sleeping and that doesn’t compare to what you must be experiencing. I can’t even imagine how many times that feeling is magnified for you in the loss of your loved one, but I’m here to listen if you want to tell me.”
I had to psychologically separate myself from the situation in order to focus on work. While I was obviously deeply affected emotionally by the event, in order to do my job fairly and well, I had to try and force myself to look at everything in two different ways: the mourning student and the professional journalist. In terms of the obituary, that was something completely different. I had never had to write something like that before, and at first I felt uncomfortable — calling someone about their dead child was not something I wanted to do. But I was polite and tried to adopt a sympathetic tone. The families worked well with me and were willing to discuss anything I wanted to know.
I had just started on as a news reporter a couple of weeks prior to April 16 and being thrust into this situation and called into the newsroom was a bit daunting. It did, however, force me to overcome whatever feelings might have debilitated me from doing work and helping out. At the time, I didn’t really know what I was feeling or what I was supposed to be feeling, let alone what I was supposed to do after such a horrible tragedy. Being asked to come into the CT office to get to work actually helped me by giving me something to do and something to focus on.
What I pulled away from the experience in regard to how to cover the situation —it was probably how to speak with other people that I’m interviewing. Being a student and being in the same situation as the people I had to speak with — other students, faculty and community members — helped a lot because yes, I was trying to gather information, but I could also understand, at least in part, what they might have been feeling. We had conversations instead of interviews, and the phone calls I made and the meetings I had with people were more like discussions and helped me personally as well. I hope I was able to help a little bit in return — just speaking about things is helpful sometimes.
What I didn’t want was have people turn me away or refuse to speak with me. I also didn’t want to sound utterly desensitized to the events because of my position as a reporter, and I didn’t want to come across as demanding to them or nosy or completely focused on just collecting information.
I tried to think about where the people I was interviewing were coming from and how they might have been impacted, relate that to myself and commiserate. As a student trying to cope as well and with the need to know more myself, I tried to make that come across in the questions I asked, tried to phrase them in ways anyone passing by the interviewee would ask such a question—that’s pretty much how I looked at the ordeal as a whole. I was just another student in a position to gather information and share it, and I was speaking to these other people because they might know and might want to share that information as well.
It also helped me do the work by thinking of it as being a voice of the student body and then relating the facts I’d been able to gather to my peers. It’s how I look at all of the writers for the CT — I don’t think of them as nosy or news-hungry. They’re just letting us know about what’s going on.
Looking back on it now, listening to how other students remember that day and the weeks and months following it, hearing about how they felt bombarded and suffocated by the onslaught of media attention and their presence on campus, I don’t feel a part of the media group but of that of the students.
One moment that I remember very clearly from those weeks came from writing an obituary.
That whole week had been spent running around, worrying about stories, Web updates, headlines, interviews and the like. I think a lot of the staff members never took a step back and thought about the emotional toll the shootings would have on us. We were so concerned with coverage that we never took time for ourselves to deal with our own grief. While counseling was readily available to all of us, many of us were so busy that we didn’t take the time to talk about our emotions.
I wrote the obituary for Jocelyn Couture-Nowak, who was a French instructor at Virginia Tech. It wasn’t until I was interviewing one of her students that the enormity of it all “hit me.” It was a day after her funeral, and student was obviously emotionally distressed. It took a long time to get through the interview because he needed to stop several times and cry. He had had Jocelyn for all four years of school and thought the world of her. He told me fantastic stories – about how she interacted and energized her students and her contagious love for the French language.
When I walked out of the interview, I had to go to my car and cry. I sat alone, parked in a campus parking lot and cried for close to an hour. I remember thinking how surprised I was that my emotions hadn’t “hit me” until that moment. I had cried several times since the shootings and thought that I had fully realized the enormity of what had happened, but it was clear that I hadn’t. I suppose it was because it had finally become real – instead of just faces and names, I realized there was a story behind the victims. And while we had our notebooks and recorders out during those weeks writing about people’s emotions, we weren’t dealing with our own.
Journalists are too often covering heartbreaking, emotional stories. At the end of the day, I think it is important for journalists to come to terms with the grave things they may see while covering a story – not only for their sanity, but for their reporting. While it is important for you to tell that person’s story, your health is important too.
On the morning of April 16, I was excited to begin my first official day as managing editor for the Collegiate Times. As any leader who comes into his or her new position, I was full of ideas and excited to get them going. So excited, that I stopped by the newsroom a little after 9 a.m. That is when I walked by the office of our adviser, Kelly Furnas.
He put down the phone and said, “It is confirmed.”
“There’s been a shooting on campus.”
My life hasn’t been the same since.
The “day” finally ended at around 5 a.m. the next morning. I then walked quickly across campus to be interviewed by FOX. The interview ended, I walked back to the newsroom to gather some stuff and relax for a little. After a two-hour nap in my apartment, it was back to the newsroom until 4 a.m. (We inched a little closer to deadline every day that week).
The rest of the week was a haze, as we were tired, emotionally exhausted, angry and numb. As a leader in the newsroom, my peers and I were faced with the task of standing strong but also letting ourselves step back from the chaos.
Wednesday was the toughest day for me.
After a combined total of four hours of sleep in two days, I dragged myself to the newsroom to help put together the newspaper. I was exhausted, I hadn’t talked to many people and I hadn’t let myself think.
The general manager of our media organization called a meeting to talk about a special Monday issue. I remember thinking to myself: Why can’t we slow down? Why can’t we call it a week and head home? Why can’t we just let the national media cover this? Why can’t I go be with my family?
Emotionally beat up in this meeting, I left. I left the newsroom. I left the building. I left the campus. I left the town.
And I cried.
It was the first time I had let my emotions back into my life. I had stood numb for the past 48 hours. Finally, I let myself feel. I let myself ask questions instead of trying to answer them in newsprint. I let myself relax.
During that afternoon, I ignored some calls from the newsroom (which were all very supportive as everyone was checking up with me). I also went to church and got to hang out with my brother, who went to school close to Virginia Tech. It was a great afternoon and certainly one I needed desperately.
By 8 p.m. that night, I had answers to most of my questions from earlier.
Why can’t we slow down? The campus community needed us. The students, faculty and town depend on the Collegiate Times for their news. If we don’t ask questions and find out answers, maybe nobody will.
Why can’t we call it a week and head home? Of course it is important in this instance to stress the fact that people can go home. People can and are encouraged to go be with their families in these tough times. But we can’t all go. We need to stay on top of the story. Some need to step up while others take much-needed time off. As a team, we can keep covering the stories for all the important reasons.
Why can’t we just let the national media cover this? Just about everyone on campus was sick of the national media roughly 10 seconds after they started arriving. With bulbs flashing at the sign of a tear, many Hokies wondered why the media couldn’t just leave them alone. These same Hokies will look toward the Collegiate Times to see how their peers cover the stories.
The coverage is a lot different when it comes from a fellow student. We (the local news source) understand what life was like before the tragedy. We understand what the readers are going through. We understand how to cover the story wholly, yet sensitively.
That week was the most difficult in my life, but the difficulty did not stop right away.
About a week after the events, we knew that it would be important to have a tribute to those killed in the tragedy. This special section was an assortment of obituaries. None of us had ever written these before, nor did we know where to start.
Furnas, our adviser, put together a rough tutorial on how to write these obituaries. Stressing sensitivity, he urged us to contact families and friends and immerse ourselves into the stories. These people lived beautiful lives and it was our job to paint that picture to the entire community. Although they were tough to write, these pieces became one of the most rewarding to write for a lot of the staff.
After such a difficult semester, the staff became a lot closer together and learned a lot about themselves and the importance of journalism.
We each took away a number of different lessons, and we each became better journalists because of covering such a monumental and tragic event:
- Take time to breathe. For many people, the way to cope with such a troubling and difficult event is to work harder. It is very important to take a step back every once in a while to make sure you are doing well. Talk to somebody and tell that person how you really feel. One of my regrets is not talking to a counselor during the weeks after the shootings. I kept too much bottled up and tried to overcome my emotions on my own.
- Keep the newsroom organized and on task. During such a chaotic event, it can be difficult to communicate and keep the newsroom up to speed. We used large printouts of each of the 20-something pages and wrote the stories that would be included on those pages. We had photo assignments given out to each photographer and included them in our rough-draft layout.
- Have one defined voice of the paper. During the first few hours of the story, many outside media outlets wanted to hear the voice of the Collegiate Times. Unprepared, and with no public relations staffer, we had many people saying many different things. Eventually, we had the editor-in-chief handle all media questions and she was able to speak with one unified voice.
- Set up and practice an emergency plan. With lines of communication clearly defined, it can help get a story efficiently onto the Web site error-free. An emergency plan should include a way to get all available staffers (and photographers) onto many different leads quickly.
- Do not force anyone to stay in the newsroom. A staffer may need time to cope with the tragedy. During the tragedy at Virginia Tech, we actually forced the entire newsroom to vacate in order to partake in a candlelight vigil. Although we lost two hours of production, it was a time where the staff was able to remember those lost and to reconnect with the community.
- Write with pride. The community looks to your story for guidance, insight and answers. Make sure you deliver. As journalists, remember that your work will be saved and read for many years. You should never breeze through any story, especially not one of such importance.
Attempting journalism in the aftermath of April 16 was at the same time one of the most rewarding and one of the most wrenching experiences I have ever been through.
On the one hand, the energy and alertness that makes good journalism possible was simply drained away. With blow after blow from the television and from the knowledge gleaned from other reporters, the emotional fatigue was intense. And you couldn't escape. The entire campus wasn't a crime scene, but the abject terror that was unleashed that afternoon didn't confine itself to Norris Hall. While adrenaline could get you through the first day and perhaps some of the second, as time went on these feelings only got deeper.
There’s no great lesson to learn from that, I don’t think. You will be crushed emotionally. You will wake up in the morning and you will cry. You will more than once wonder why the hell you’re even bothering with all this newspaper business.
But what most surprised me about the aftermath of April 16 was that student (and a strong emphasis on student) journalism became an integral part of healing. As insiders to the events, when I picked up the phone at 2:30 a.m. to call the boyfriend of a girl who had reportedly been killed, I didn’t get yelled off the phone. Rather, those we so often see as “sources” were our friends and speaking was a sort of catharsis – the knowledge wasn’t just theirs anymore but had been absorbed by the community.
Personally, remembering that reporting amidst tragedy is a truly community effort is absolutely vital. You are asking questions that your entire community needs asked now. By being respectful of that purpose, the other things fall into place.
Professionally, what is there to say? There aren’t any magic tricks. Having strong lines of communication already established make it possible to react to an event, but without the same hard-nosed journalistic instincts and perseverance that we put to use on a daily basis the story won't get told - at least by you. That said, building some sort of community forum in which people can interact and share their feelings is both an immense community service and a way to gauge the way your community is reacting to the event.