What has the media learned since Columbine

Last week, CNN anchor Brianna Keller found herself, for the second time within a week, guiding viewers through the grueling ritual of trying and failing, to make sense of another mass shooting.

This time, 10 people died at the grocery store Boulder, Colo. Just a few days ago, she met a survivor of a stampede at an Atlanta area massage parlor. In 2019, Ms. Keylor reported back-to-back shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. In 2018, she spoke with relatives of students killed in a shooting in Parkland, Fla.

Broadcast journalists such as Miss Keylor, 40, have turned the bulk of their reporting careers into an uneven, distinctly American horror show: Random Gun Massacre. She was the first CNN journalist to come to the Virginia Tech campus in 2007. And she was a college freshman in 1999 watching the network’s coverage of the devastation at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.

All this was going on in Ms. Keller’s mind on Tuesday when, on-air, she stopped after reports from a reporter about 25-year-old Boulder supermarket manager Rikki Olds, who had been murdered. “I wonder, how often can you cover a story like this?” He asked, catching his voice. “Have you lost count?”

Ms. Keylor said in an interview, “I just had a feeling for this horrible experience” “If you’re covering it all the time, it’s possible to become numb. Because it somehow becomes supernatural. This thing that Is completely unacceptable, and should be extraordinary, it becomes infallible. “

Journalists who have reported numerous mass shootings say that these moments lead to sadness, frustration and, for some, a sense of futility on the face due to a kind of duplication. Now there is a well-developed playbook consisting of network correspondents and newspaper writers Many New York Times reporters, Turning as they travel to yet another afflicted city. Talk to victims and gunners; Attend wiggles and funerals; Gather information from the police and the courts. Report essential reporting on balance with the ability that too much attention can be seen as glorifying the attacker.

“I called it the checklist: shock, horror, resentment,” Lester Holt, anchor of “NBC Nightly News,” said in an interview. “It is all very familiar, and everyone knows how to play the role and how to answer questions and how these things play out. Because sadly they are very predictable. “

Mr. Holt, who has reported on the shooting in El Paso; Los Vegas; Newtown, Conn.; Orlando; Santa Fe, Texas; San Bernardino, California; And Sutherland Springs, Texas – a long but without a detailed list – said he was considering this month in light of the country’s slow withdrawal from the coronovirus epidemic in Colorado and Georgia.

“The shootout,” he said, “is what sadness looks like in this country in general.”

Journalists reporting on Columbine may not have considered how regular the event they were covering would become. For his book on the shooting, “Columbine,” Dave Cullen analyzed media coverage and found that soon after the Littleton attack, network news aired in more than 40 segments, with CNN and Fox News historically raising high ratings Noted, and the Times noted Columbine on its first pages of nearly two straight weeks.

Mr. Cullen said in an interview that he believed reporters had absorbed useful lessons since that first episode. “In 1999, we took everything we heard as gospel; The estimate changed very quickly.

After Columbine, news organizations were quick to formally explain what Mr. Cullen called the “myths” about the shooting: the murderers were incited to avenge Gothic children in the popular jugaad. Much of that narrative came from faulty sourcing, and Mr. Cullen said he saw journalists being more cautious about arriving at a premature conclusion about an attacker’s motivations. “We take things with a grain of salt,” he said. “There was no salt in 1999.”

Journalists have learned to spend more time focusing on victims rather than criminals. It was a change that played out loud on social media, as readers on Twitter prompted news organizations to focus more on those killed in the Atlanta shootings, as well as crimes against Asian-Americans rather than gunshots. Fast motivation.

Mr. Cullen recalled a journalism conference in 2005 where he made the impression that journalists should avoid focusing too much on gunfire. “I practically shouted from the stage,” he said. “Now, when I mention the names of a shooter of an old case on television, I will get angry tweets from people. The expectations of the public have changed. “

Journalists are usually expected to set aside their feelings as they gather indifferent facts about a tragic event. But this is not always possible, and Mr. Holt said that “it was important to report these things as abnormal, not normal.”

“I think it’s a little bit okay,” said Mr. Holt of NBC Nightly News. “As a journalist, it’s not an editorial position to be upset or offended by mass murder, people going about their day, shopping, getting bitten by a stranger. It’s okay to be upset about it . “

Gayle King, the “CBS This Morning” anchor, described the experience of feeling “like you’re once again kicking in the stomach.”

“We almost know how this story is going,” she said, invoking a phrase she attributed to a CBS co-worker, Steve Hartman: “We’re going to grieve, we’re going to pray, we’re going to repeat Going “

“My concern is that we are getting frustrated,” he said. “I don’t want us to be angry about it.”

And some journalists have to endure it, and report on it, again and again in their communities.

Chris Vandersen, 47, was there as a young reporter after the Columbine shooting. He went there to report on the 2012 Aurora Film Theater shooting. And he was supposed to lead a team of reporters during the Boulder shooting on Monday.

“When I was in journalism school I figured I’d cover other things,” Mr. Vandersen, Denver’s NBC affiliate, director of reporting at Cusa, said in an interview.

He recalled the painful lesson he and his colleagues took from the Columbine shooting. Many reporters covering that incident developed close relationships with people in the community, including the parents of the victims. He said that this helped him ask an important question: “What can we learn as journalists not involved in grief?”

After Aurora, KUSA invited family members of the victims to the station. He was not there for the interview. “No story, nothing,” he said. “Just to help us with our coverage.”

Mr. Vandercane said that through those conversations, the station decided not to show the same mug shot of the gunman repeatedly. And he said he continued to consider the role of the news media in potentially motivating future killers. He said, “I worry that there are people who want to be recognized for many reasons, and then they see this heavy emphasis on a person who keeps showing their picture.”

On Monday, Mr. Vandercane was in a meeting about an investigative story when word came from a manufacturer: bullets were fired at a grocery store in Boulder. Critical experience quickly kicked in.

“Every journalist goes through hard stories,” he said. “We are not alone with this. It is just unfortunate that in Colorado, a number of us, who have given us, for lack of a better word, have been trained to try to deal with these things. But it’s still going to be terrible. “

His team of reporters may be among the few in the news media who cover up after the massacre, which he knows from experience would be a difficult task. After Columbine, national journalists stayed in the area for months. After Aurora, they stayed for a few weeks, he said. He suspects that it will only be a few days before national news outlet Boulder leaves.

“Maybe the country is tired of them,” he said. “I’m tired of them. If I didn’t get to cover one of these damn things again, I’d be fine. “

“But nothing changes,” he said. “That’s what drives me crazy.” nothing changes.”

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