Monday, October 02, 2006

The tough task of covering school violence

It has not been a good week for American schools.

Last Wednesday, a men held several female students hostage at a suburban Denver school. He sexually assaulted the girls and shot and killed one 16-year-old. Then on Friday, a 15-year-old Wisconsin boy took two guns from his parents' bedroom, went to school, and shot his principal to death. And three days later, a truck driver in Pennsylvania killed three girls and wounded eight others in an attack on a one-room Amish schoolhouse.

In the aftermath of such sudden, violent events, community members in each of the areas react differently. In Colorado, readers of the Rocky Mountain News had another, separate reaction--to the media coverage the followed Wednesday's violence at Platte Canyon High School.

Several Rocky Mountain readers wrote angry letters to the paper, blasting its decision to reveal information about the teenage victim of the shooting just hours after her death, reportedly against her family's wishes.

On Saturday, the paper's editor, John Temple, responded. In an editorial outlining the lessons learned from that other infamous Colorado school shooting, Temple argued that identifying the young victim was a service to her--and to the community.

"As for the decision to publish the victim's name, a homicide in a school is not a suicide in a private house," Temple wrote. "It's a matter of public concern...By showing her picture and treating her as a real person, I think we showed far more humanity than if we had not reported anything about her life."

To be sure, reporting the details of such a shocking event makes for a tough task, and a tough series of decisions. According to Temple, by the time the story was running, people in the community were already aware of the victim's identity. But before the day had even ended, the community was drowning in media coverage of all kinds.

It's really hard to say what was the right thing to have done. Certainly, the girl deserves the respect of the community, and perhaps writing about her personality, printing her picture, and telling her story accomplishes that task. Or perhaps the paper should have waited, giving the girl's family--and the rest of the community--a minute to regroup.

The bottom line is that these stories--Columbine, Platte Canyon, and now Lancaster County--need to be told, but not overhyped. School violence is terrifying and it says something terrifying about our country. The victims of these acts should be remembered as individuals, rather than school safety statistics.

But members of the media should tred carefully. Though we hope days like these will become a thing of the past, it is essential to learn from each story and do better with the next.

Temple's full editorial can be read here.



At Wednesday, October 04, 2006, Blogger Medill Media Watch said...

Earlier today I saw a photo of the deputy coroner handling the Pennsylvania shootings. She was sitting inside a church with her head down, obviously trying to cope with the gravity of what she had seen. People across the country are going through the same emotions, and the media are one of the few in a position to give them what they desire: understanding. To do that, journalists have to talk about the victims, and in this case, disclose the awful details. Especially given Columbine, the Rocky Mountain News had to inform the public as soon as possible and provide context, which meant talking about the teenage victim. That being said, I don't think the paper had to run a photo of the victim right then. It had already taken her from a statistic to a person by giving her name.

In a way, being a journalist is like being a traffic cop. People get upset when they get a ticket, and readers complain when a particular article offends them. But we expect cops to protect us and create a safe environment for driving. Likewise, readers expect publications to inform them, even when its information they wish never had to be reported.

At Wednesday, October 04, 2006, Blogger Medill Media Watch said...

That response was posted by AJ.

At Sunday, October 08, 2006, Blogger Medill Media Watch said...

You've raised a very important issue. The channel or network that often gets a story first and is the first to publish the details, (whether it be a victim's name) or the gory details of any situation, is often regarded as the 'winner-of-the-who-got-the-story-first-race.' In such a competitive industry, the victims and families affected by anything from school shootings to sexual assaults are often not given adequate time to cope with the a situation before the media has plastered photos and private information through every possible outlet. The media industry often sacrifices sensitivity and compassion for timeliness.

Response posted by M.G.


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