Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Virginia's tragedy brings a host of questions

The past 36 hours have been tough. It's been tough for our nation. It's been tough for humanity. It's been tough for each of us during our quiet moments alone. And, of course, it's been more than tough for the wounded and friends and family of the slain. The collective grief since the Virginia Tech massacre has been almost palpable.

I agree with LL. This story makes all of us think: What would we do if we were assigned to that story? Where are our own ethical boundaries -- as people and as journalists? Could we even report this tragedy without breaking down?

I've been glued to the television 24-7 (I left CNN on while I slept last night and stared at the TV monitors unwaveringly while I worked out at the gym). I literally could not look away. My remote is broken, so I've been manually flipping through continually to find out what each channel is reporting. From CNN on channel 36 to CBS on channel two, every news source has been locked into Virginia's grief. The graphics, headlines and interviewees change -- but the message is the same: How could this happen and why?

I found of the best approaches to this story on CNN's Anderson Cooper 360. John King stepped in for Cooper, who is in Afghanistan, I think. King introduced all of the victims and provided snapshots of their lives, including their ages and majors. Sometimes he offered a slice of who they were, a sliver so small that it whetted the audience's insatiable appetite. For instance, King described one of the victims by saying that the young man had recently called his mother to announce he wanted to major in English. Those few words transformed the shocking, but impersonal, fatality count into something more real. Thirty-two murders became 32 dreams, 32 mourning families, 32 attractive faces glistening with youth and hope.

The raw emotion has the country riveted to its computer screens and TV sets. It's times like these that brings people into the fold of the news. We're all looking for some kind of explanation, a way to find sense amid the senselessness. Every pang of grief felt in Virginia stings the nation, and sometimes our reporters help to ease the pain. That's why I appreciated the anchors who took the helm, especially Brian Williams on "NBC Nightly News." He seemed charmingly authentic on a grassy knoll at Virginia Tech, with the black backdrop of night behind him and a strong wind mussing his hair. The only other "set" he used was his limo, which nearly shattered the romantic scene he set on the campus lawn.

Such a heart-wrenching horror calls for commensurate images. Most of the major newspapers and news stations featured similar front-page photographs. They were bloody and, in the case of CNN's graphic iReport video, captured the panicked moment. But how much is too much? Parents could have easily seen the bloodied, crumpled bodies of their children being towed out by law enforcement before they were informed. Whose responsiblity is it to make sure the victims' families are notified? Should that even be a factor when choosing which video is fit to air?


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