Apr 172007
Authors: Sean Reed

While yesterday’s shootings at Virginia Tech left many Americans in a state of paralysis and shock, one group of people – mobilized by a common cause – took to the streets.

We call these people journalists.

The goal of any news organization is to be as objective as possible, but in extraordinary circumstances like those at Virginia Tech, it is hard to keep emotional reactions out of it.

The massacre left 33 people dead and even more injured.

In the face of such a tragedy, a major consideration is how the story should be framed.

Both Fox and Headline News zeroed in on interviews with anybody they could find from the Virginia Tech campus, whether or not they could give specific information about the event. Because of this, their focus tended to be more on the emotional side of the event, rather than on a specific timeline.

CNN focused on more relevant interviews. The most enlightening was with Virginia Attorney General Bob McDonnell. They asked questions that focused on the timeline of events, how many shooters, was there a motive established, what type of weapon was used?

Of course, at this time, investigators in Virginia did not have any of this information. After this became clear, they followed suit with the rest of the news outlets and started interviewing any student they could get on camera.

Is our reliance on sources only vaguely associated with the event appropriate, or does it lean toward sensationalism?

John Lupo, a lecturer in the speech communication department at CSU, says the coverage of this event tended toward the latter: “I don’t think it borders on sensationalism,” he said. “It is sensationalism.”

Students on campus, too, think coverage should focus on the facts, but they do not seem to think coverage has gone too far.

“Facts are more important,” said Cole Hanson, a sophomore business major. However, he still thought the Fox News report he watched in the student lounge was “pretty good.”

Nick Hanson, a junior speech communication major and participant in a student prayer circle in support of the victims, was wary of the way the press was editorializing specifics such as police response to the shootings.

“Before the investigation of the facts, (the press) said the police needed to be investigated. . Before the facts are in, they should not be editorializing.”

Others, such as Patrick Plaisance, an ethics expert in the department of journalism, thinks emotional appeal is important.

“This is an amazingly emotional story,” Plaisance said. “Any story trying to minimize the emotional aspect is suspect.”

What is important is proper balance. News organizations need to use good judgment in their broadcast choices. They need to consider the consequences that may arise from the way they cover a story.

When the Columbine shootings occurred, Plaisance said, “news organizations jumped the gun and broadcast things, words, and pictures without thinking of possible harm.”

He specifically mentioned an incident involving a prank caller in Texas who managed to get airtime by claiming he was in the school.

These kinds of mistakes need not be repeated. The more human side of the story is appropriate for situations such as this, but news organizations need to be careful. There is an inherent danger in using any and every source you can get your hands on, and in the rush to beat the other broadcasters to the punch, there is a risk of getting burned.

Because of this, information should be looked at critically before it goes to print. If it has no context in the story and only serves to create shock, it is not newsworthy.

It’s sensationalism – and in the face of tragedy – it is an unforgivable sin.

Sean Reed is a junior political science major. His column appears every Wednesday in the Collegian. Replies and feedback can be sent to letters@collegian.com.

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