Media: How we feast on tragedy

Andrew Gumbel feels sickened by the relentless exploitation of personal grief he saw after the school massacre in Colorado
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The Independent Culture
He wanted to be known just as Zach, and even that might not have been his real name. After all, by the time he spoke up, he was sick of the media and wasn't going to give them any more than they had to know.

This time last week, Zach was inside Columbine High School, in the suburbs of Denver, when two of his schoolmates burst in with bombs and semi-automatic weapons in a suicidal orgy of violence that left 15 people dead and more than 20 injured. He was among the first to escape and spent several anxious hours unsure whether his brother, friends, or teachers were alive or dead. At times he broke down in tears, at others he leaned on the shoulder of a classmate for emotional support.

And then that night he switched on the television. "There I was," he protested. "I'd become the icon on MSNBC. They came back to me every time they took a break for commercials. I never asked for this. Nobody sought my opinion. Frankly, this was the last thing I needed."

Zach felt his privacy and intimate emotions were violated just as he was at his most vulnerable. And he is far from the only one to react that way to the media onslaught on Columbine High over the past seven days. The networks and the newspapers have talked incessantly about letting the healing process begin, but the truth is they haven't given the students a chance.

The school parking lot, the nearby park where an impromptu shrine has taken shape, the local churches, the library, the houses of individual students - all have been under virtual siege by television cameras and reporters as the world has clamoured to find out what exactly happened in those four terrible hours and, more particularly, why.

There has barely been a tear shed or a desperate hug offered in a public place that hasn't instantly found its way on to video and been broadcast on network news around the world. In an overwhelming situation like this, the media cannot be an innocent bystander. As the cameras dart around Clement Park, site of the impromptu memorial where the media has set up its headquarters, and pick off any visible sign of heartbreak or despair among the mourners, it is impossible not to reflect that television reporters, in their own way, shoot schoolchildren, too.

"They're like rats," muttered one 15-year-old Columbine student to her friend, not realising that a journalist was within earshot. "They're all over us because we're big news for now, but soon they're going to lose interest and scuttle away to the next thing and dump us like we don't matter any more."

As terror-stricken teenagers have microphones thrust in their faces and are asked over and over to delve into the gory details of their horrifying experiences, one can only wonder what psychological damage is being inflicted on these fractured young lives.

With each day the hostility became more palpable. On the first night, reporters could roam at will among parents waiting to hear about the fate of their children, among students at church services, and among relatives gathered in hospital waiting rooms to find out whether loved ones had survived.

Within three days, however, reporters were being dumped unceremoniously in the snow outside churches and other public buildings and told to wait for the students to volunteer themselves for interview. Security guards in the Southwest Plaza Mall hovered menacingly over anyone brandishing a notebook, threatening to expel them. Neighbours of the two dead killers, having answered the first 50-odd questions, started slamming doors in reporters' faces.

While the media might claim to be performing a valuable public information service, educators and psychologists with experience of school shootings are in no doubt that the real healing can only begin when the media tires of the story and skips town. "It's absolutely essential that everyone should be able to mourn in privacy," says Larry Bentz, principal of Thurston High School in Springfield, Oregon, where a student killed two of his classmates before turning a gun on himself last May. "I thought the media presence was appalling then, and I think it is appalling now."

Mr Bentz is convinced that talking to the media in the first flush of shock, when victims are barely in control of what they are doing, can exacerbate the trauma. He banned the media from his school from the outset, and continues to do so. If a student wishes to talk to a journalist, it must be outside the school premises and at the student's instigation only. (Which is not to say he does not believe the media has a place - he was unfailingly helpful to this reporter.)

In Springfield, almost none of the students wanted to talk. In Littleton, though, students have come to Clement Park every day with the express intention of addressing reporters. In some cases it has turned into a game: if one member of a group has been on Dateline, someone else will try to get on to Forty-Eight Hours, or Inside Edition, or one of the other network magazine slots.

"It helps validate what happened for them," suggested one local school- board member. One has to wonder, however, about the mental health of a girl like Bree Pasquale, who appeared on television in deep distress on the first day as she described having a gun pointed at her head for 10 minutes. She continued to give interviews on subsequent days, looking surprisingly composed and relaxed. It was only over the weekend that her mother told a local paper that she did not sleep or eat for 72 hours.

As a member of the media covering the shootings myself, I can only express my deep discomfort at the sense that I and the swarm of colleagues around me were intruding on other people's grief. I tried to talk to people at one or more removes from the tragedy - children at other local schools, pastors, educators, investigators and politicians - and observe those directly affected from a discreet distance.

These are only half-measures, of course, and the experience has left me feeling dirty and unsure as to how much the world really needs to know - in these very early stages, at least - about the full extent of the trauma. I would rather go back in six months' time and then ask the hard, complex questions, when people have recovered sufficiently to give thoughtful answers and are also able to shield those who are vulnerable from prying eyes. But the news business is a voracious monster, and it wants - we all want - answers and images and raw emotion, right here and right now.

We might fancy that we feel empathy for the victims, but the truth is that we are feasting on them like vultures.