Monday, April 15, 2013

Journalism and emotion in a time of tragedy

I've experienced a few tragedies of varying degrees of affect over my short career in journalism. My first tragedy was the Virginia Tech shootings in my first year as a professional. I also experienced the pain many members of PNN felt shortly after some family members and friends of staff members were either detained, injured or amongst the chaos, cut off from contact, following post election riots in Iran. I've also experienced a few personal tragedies, one of which had a significant anniversary just a little over a month ago.

I remarked tonight that I wish I could feel the emotion following a tragedy any longer, but at the ripe age of 27, I've become immune to the rawness associated to bombings and the death tolls that come after them. My first reaction is coverage. I assemble facts and report them. I maintain all rationality. Every day for the past two years on my project, 20-30 people died in some country some where as the result of a bombing. I see it all the time. I've seen tragedy on my own soil. And I am of the generation that will always keep an individual location close to heart on 9/11/01.

So it makes sense that there is no place more comforting for me than in a newsroom in tragedy. Raw emotion, like tears or anger, don't often appear in a newsroom. There are few places more generally level headed and rational overly than a newsroom. And there is also, generally, no place that handles tragedy with more maturity than a newsroom. I remember 9/11 in high school and how angry I felt to see fellow students react with glee following the cancellation of school that afternoon. I'd rather not experience that again.

The emotion is below the surface of the people as all of us know we are the link to sanity and information for any members of the public who need it. It is with this idea in mind that I look at the major news orgs and their constant news cycle and realize how much more ill prepared their newsroom is for a tragedy that unfolds quickly but with few real details to report. The talking heads spout conjecture about possible motives before a suspect is apprehended.

I cannot stress what I've learned in my minimal experience enough to any journalists reading this post: you are the link to sanity to the public. You must provide any context. You must inform an otherwise panicked public that, despite the tragedy witnessed earlier, Armageddon is not upon us. Some parts of life may have changed but those not directly affected by the events must wake up tomorrow and go on as they did today and the previous day. Audience members mourn, reminisce and experience emotions they need help coping with. They watch you, the writer, the reader, the anchor, to provide them with the tools to understand and calm down. You won't say it and it isn't your job to say it, but they will look to you to know its going to be ok, someday. Journalism is a hefty responsibility and no more is that evident in the times of greatest need.

To all those reading, journalists or not: let's not forget the trauma experienced after today. Trauma like this lives with you forever. People were maimed but will survive. First responders entered a war-like scene. These people's lives have changed forever and they will need your support years from now. Do not forget the courage it takes to move on beyond shock. People that have a distance from tragedy can continue their lives as normal but people impacted will never be the same. Don't give into the tendency to forget, to live within your own privileged distance. If we are all truly Americans and we all come together in our times of greatest need, that sense should live on past the shock of the event. The hardest part for many of those directly affected comes after today.

Finally, I wish we cared about each other as much as we do today everyday. I've wished that for a long time. Tell someone you love how you feel about them, directly, this evening. And tell someone that you're associated with their importance to you, even if you haven't talked in a while. Tomorrow isn't a guarantee.