Friday, April 20, 2007

And Now a Word on Virginia Tech

I've given a lot of thought to writing about what happened at Virginia Tech on Monday. I have mainly avoided news coverage on the topic, since reading about the horrific events on CNN's website Monday. I gleaned all I needed to on the shooter in my less-than-five-minute drive from work to school the other day. And I heard an earful from investigators about the (in)appropriateness of the media's use of the shooter's packaged photos and video, sent to NBC.

Of course, there are two schools of thought on the media's reaction. One is that it is news. It is information. People have a right to know. The other is that giving the idiot who shot up a college campus a public forum to ooze his offensive manifesto gives him exactly what he wanted. For surely, NBC wouldn't have broadcast the information had he not shot up a college campus.

I feel badly for NBC. I understand why they shared the information. And, of course, their behavior falls well within their First Amendment constitutional rights (at least as this almost-finished-with-law-school-and-terrified-of-the-bar-student understands). But there is a big difference between what is permissible or legal and what people should do. NBC's ratings shot up something like 26% from sharing the material, so there's certainly an incentive for them to do so. And I have to wonder if we should admonish a news agency for sharing information the public clearly wants to know about.

On the other hand, television and radio is what I consider a push medium, as compared to the Internet, which I think of as a pull medium. What I mean by this is that when I flip on the television or the radio, I'm not doing so because I'm seeking the particular news story the media has to share. (It is true, of course, that sometimes I am looking for news on the topic on which they are reporting, but there are always many other topics on which they report, even in the same newscast, about which I am not interested.) So the television and radio stations push the news they want to push. With the Internet, on the other hand, I use my search engine to actively seek out information on a given topic. I've pulled the material from cyberspace, and I can control what I read or don't read. Sure, I could turn off the television of radio (and I have), but sometimes not before it's too late. And sometimes, information so permeates the TV and radio, that a topic is difficult to avoid.

So what do to? A part of me wishes the media had reported that there was this information, and if people were interested in it, they could hear all about it in 1. a single broadcast, to be aired at X time on X day, and that would be it; or 2. on the Internet at X URL, where there would be information available for those seeking it. While these seem better than broadcasting photos of a shooter brandishing weapons and spewing ignorant hatred, I'd still prefer they not give him any air time at all.

I was thinking about how this might all lead to copycats-- or just other crazed maniacs who might want to make themselves famous by shooting up some public place. Really, what we're teaching people is that all you have to do is shoot up a fast food restaurant if you want to be famous (which actually happened near here when I was a kid. The guy killed 21 and wounded 19 in a McDonald's- and I still remember hearing about it more than twenty years later) .

What should we be doing instead?
We should be focusing on the lives lost and injured because of this tragedy. And I know we are-- today is a day of mourning for them. But I mean more specifically. I mean the individual people. I would like to know who they were, what their hopes, dreams, and plans were. What kind of people they were. I'd like to hear about what we lost as a nation because of this tragedy. I can't help but wonder if these kinds of tragedies gave more air time to the victims (both living and deceased)-- if it became a tribute to them, an opportunity for their personal manifestos (pieced together by families and friends) to air, if there would be less of an incentive to kill in the first place. Yes, yes. I know the guy was likely a deranged lunatic. But I'd much rather hear about where these students were headed in the next days, weeks, months, and years of their lives than about why this guy killed them. I'm satisfied by knowing he was mad because of x, y, and z (and I'm not writing his reasons here intentionally); I don't need to hear his reasons in his own words.

I was in Oklahoma back in 2001 coaching my high school students at the National Forensic League Championship Tournament (speech and debate). It was the week in June that the Oklahoma City bomber was executed. I remember it clearly because all the university televisions were silent, rolling the names of all the victims lost in that bombing. The media didn't spend time recounting the bomber's motives or his crime. It focused squarely on the victims. And this is where the focus should be. Sadly, I don't remember a name of a single Oklahoma City victim. Even after visiting the memorial. Yet I know the names of the bombers.

I wish, instead, I knew more about the victims. I wish we all focused on that. Giving shooters and bombers a public forum to decree their beliefs just fuels the flames of future would-be maniacs. So whether or not there is a newsworthy reason to report on it, I don't think we should be spending our time there.

You'll notice throughout this very long post, I never once mentioned the name of any shooter or bomber or other terrorists. This was quite on purpose.

Post-script #2
After thinking about this post today some more, I realize that I referred to all bombers and shooters as deranged, maniacal, idiotic, and a whole slew of other pretty hostile terms. But I also want to acknowledge that I don't know much about any of them-- these so-called psychopaths. And I suppose it is possible that at least one of them wasn't an angry a-hole, but instead a seriously sick bastard. And I mean that with sincerity and not the bitter sarcasm with which it may appear to drip. I don't mean to suggest mental illness excuses the behavior. But i can't help but conclude that if there are sick people out there-- isolated and angry ones in particular-- we need to do more to search them out and help them. Sigh. I sure do wish our country did a better job with mental health care-- which is a diatribe for another day. We have terrible systems in place for healthcare. . . and that's an even bigger topic for another day. . .

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