Taking a breath after the horror at Virginia Tech

Public Editor

April 29, 2007|By Paul Moore | Paul Moore,Public Editor

This column reflects on what some would consider "old" news - the shootings at Virginia Tech - and I offer this observation: Reporters, editors and readers needed breathing room after this horrific event to achieve some kind of perspective on what happened there.

The coverage of the worst mass shooting in American history has raised interesting questions about the direction and velocity of modern American journalism. Some readers and television viewers felt assaulted by the in-your-face presentation of the bad news - very large headlines and photos, including menacing close-ups of the shooter brandishing handguns. Others felt numbed by the often repetitive nature of the coverage, especially some of the hand-wringing, emotionally charged television reports allegedly examining grief.

Then there were the thousands of bloggers who used cell phones and the Internet to share information immediately - like the 41-second cell video taken by a Virginia Tech student that gave the world its first glimpse of the chaos on the Blacksburg, Va., campus.

In this intensely competitive multimedia era, journalists went all out to cover the story. An army of reporters and photographers - from newspapers, magazines, cable and broadcast networks and an array of non-traditional outlets - descended on the campus of 26,000 students. Once the assailant, who committed suicide, and his 32 victims were identified, a flood of stories touching on every conceivable angle - guns, mental illness, privacy and counseling, campus security - were produced.

National correspondent Robert Little, who was among the seven Sun journalists dispatched to Virginia Tech, described the scene. "Reporters were waiting outside dormitories and class buildings, waiting to interview any student or faculty member who emerged, so there were mini-press conferences all over campus. But soon the students became wary and almost cynical. The most common response became, `No comment.' "

NBC's release of details from the "multimedia manifesto" mailed to the network by the media savvy murderer, Seung-Hui Cho, sparked a new level of intensity. Cable networks played clips of his menacing videos and newspapers published disconcerting still images as journalists sought to reconstruct the crime and examine Cho's history for clues about his motivation. Not surprisingly, Cho's video drew very heavy Internet traffic, but many readers and viewers were taken aback by the mainstream media's treatment of the "manifesto."

Said Sun reader Suzanne Manner: "I think it's a shame that most U.S. newspapers chose to give the Virginia Tech gunman so much space on their front pages."

Pam Pressman said: "The Sun's April 19 front page glorified the killer by using such a big, close-up image. I had to put the newspaper down."

By late last week, discomfort with the intense coverage had reached a peak. Frustrated and exhausted Virginia Tech students quietly but firmly asked the media to leave so they could begin classes again Monday with fewer distractions. So the media tsunami began to recede.

Last Sunday's newspapers finally produced, in my view, several articles that actually provided real perspective. Sun reporter Michael Hill's Ideas section piece, "33 dead. Who's to blame?," examined the national predilection for demanding clear reasons for possibly inexplicable tragedies.

He concluded that debates on the biggest issues raised after the shootings - gun control, mental health care, privacy requirements and campus security issues - failed to produce fresh understanding but rather largely reinforced entrenched beliefs. Hill also surmised that more stringent controls most likely would not have prevented this event. A number of readers agreed.

Jerry Kahan said: "Your article is the most insightful, clearheaded piece of journalism delivered this past week regarding the tragic events at Virginia Tech."

Said Clifton Osborn: "It is reassuring to hear a voice still capable of critical reasoning in the face of horrific realities in so many arenas."

Dominic Tiburzi said: "Thank you for a thoughtful and respectful article. Most media, pro- and anti-gun control types, mental health advocates and the rest, have been loud in their ghoulish pursuit of ratings, an agenda, or to prove how smart they are. Your conclusion was the most sane in a week of insanity."

From Nancy S. Spritz: "Your analysis was the most reasonable one I have read of all that have been written and spoken. Everyone seems to think they have all the answers, but as you pointed out, all of the theories and solutions have logical and logistical flaws."

In my view, one thing is certain: There is no real or guaranteed protection against a mentally ill person with guns.

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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