Wednesday, April 18, 2007

A Request

I didn't think I had anything to say about what happened this week at Virginia Tech. I was wrong. I really don't want to add to the din of reports and comments about what happened and why. Rather I'm writing this to make a request from everyone. Reporters, politicians, civilians. All of us.

I first heard about the incident while listening to Jim Rome while in the car. He, very carefully, relayed that there was a report of a shooting at the campus of Virginia Tech. He relayed the initial report that there were over twenty dead. It was clear that he was shaken by this information coming across the news wires and he very politely spoke for a few moments about how this report had rattled him and that he was not ready to do his job of being a sports commentator and radio show host. He took a break and went to commercial to gather himself. I did not get to hear the rest of his show as I had reached my destination, but I commend him on how he handled himself.

I heard a few more "breaking news" reports later on in the day. I purposefully did not seek out any information but heard about it nonetheless. It was all over the television. So I turned it off. It was all over the radio, so I turned it off too. It came via email. It came via rss feeds. So I turned them all off. I unplugged.


Because I know what the air feels like on a day like that. I know what silence sounds like on a day like that. I know because almost twenty years ago I was locked into my high school and ushered into the cafeteria as my classmates and I learned of a shooting at a neighboring elementary school.

I was there as people asked questions. I was there when people frantically called home to check in with loved ones. I was there when they said a woman walked into the elementary school, announced she was giving a lesson about hand guns and proceeded to shoot six kids. I was there when we learned she shot the brother of a classmate. I was there when we learned she killed herself in that classmates house. I was there when we learned she was an alum of our high school.

And though the high school was not supposed to let students go home without a ride as an effort to ensure everyone would get home safe, I walked home alone one and a half miles to my house. I have never experienced quiet like I did on that walk. No one was out. I did not see a single car driving down the street on the way home. No neighbors in the yard. No one. Just silence. And sunshine. It made an impression.

And I know what it was like when summer camp opened a month later and several classmates of the young boy who died in that elementary school classroom had to attempt a return to normalcy. And I was a new camp counselor.

I suppose unplugging was my way of giving the grieving families space. I did not need to hear this information before they did. I did not need to know where the shooter bought his guns prior to the next of kin being contacted. This was not my tragedy. Nor, I should say, was the event of nearly twenty years ago my tragedy. No one I knew was hurt or killed. I just happened to be there. I was not involved. As for the events of this week I know that in time all the information about what happened will come out. I can wait. Something I wish our media outlets would do as well. Alas, that has not been the case.

Instead we see Matt Lauer (whom I like on most days) reporting live from the campus the very next day. Within minutes there were numerous television and newspaper reporters on site interviewing students, faculty, paramedics, police officers, friends of the injured, friends of the deceased, people who were in the classroom next door, a custodian, the guy who owned the shop were the guns were bought and former classmates of the shooter. All this at a time when the interviewees were asking more questions than giving answers. And it all seems wrong to me.

Why must our national media organizations swarm around a tragedy, jockeying for the best position and interview? Why must they interview students the same day the event occured? Why, instead of conducting an interview with a student still in shock, don't they help them find a counselor to speak with first? And while the questions asked may be legitimate questions to ask (though not all were), and though many if not all of the reporters relayed well wishes and condolences and the conclusion of each report it just felt insincere.

I'm sure any one of those reporters who might read that would take issue and defend themselves as being most sincere, but come on. Isn't there anyone with a sense of what is needed here? Give them space. Make your self accessible, but do not pursue this. It is not worth the scoop.

I have no professional training in grief counseling. What I know is that I recieved advice on how I could help the kids at camp if and when needed. The advice I recieved then is my request now for the people closest to this tragic event.

Give them the time that they need to absorb what has happened. Give them time to grieve. Give them space. Be there for them. If they want to talk they will. When they ask questions, answer them. They have suffered through a traumatic event. They will all handle it differently and you need to watch out for their best interests. Not yours.


kbd said...

Dan, thanks for saying that -- my sentiments exactly.

Sam Meers said...


In my home town of Olney, Illinois, I had become friends of the local sheriff, Harry McPharen. Living in the country we saw him often. When we saw him using his radar gun to catch speeders, we would stop and talk with him until he caught someone.

A few years later, when I was working at the radio station hosting a talk show, the news director entered the studio and broke into my show. She went on to inform the audience that Harry McPheren had shot his wife and then killed himself.

We went to a commercial break, and 60 seconds later I was back on the air.

At age 20, it was challenging to continue the interveiw, but I did. We had been taught in journalism classes that this sort of event could happen. And we had watched tapes of how veteran broadcasters had conducted themselves when it did. Walter Cronkite, for example, with the JFK news.

It is a sad state of affairs when ratings matter so much that media outlets cannot have a bit more conscience — a bit more patience — a bit more respect.

I have to believe the advertisers that support them would respect them more if they did.

dhduff said...

I have no doubt that you handled that situation as best you could. What a shock that must have been.

And I agree with you that it is a sad state of affairs when ratings matter more than respect.

A side note... before the incident at VT we got a note from school about "TV turn off" week. It started yesterday. Timing is just fine with me.

Anonymous said...

--Tom Rafferty, Virgina Tech 1993