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Littleton lessons

In covering tragedy, the media inadvertently create another one.

By David Van Meter

"Your biggest problem will be the national media."

Grover Cooper, the superintendent of Westside schools near Jonesboro, Ark., didn't think too much about that warning from Paducah's superintendent (in Kentucky). Shocked and devastated by the shooting of 13 children and two teachers, my Dad had functioned on professional autopilot for nearly three hours. Amongst dozens of split-second decisions, TV reporters stopped Dad to ask "how he feels" (he didn't answer). Dad admonished reporters as they trailed 12-year-old children with microphones in hand. Still, grief had prevented him from thinking of this tragedy as a "story." By nightfall, Dad knew.

Satellite dishes, lights, microphones and reporters had arrived from everywhere. TV reporters, in a frenzy to talk to anyone, anywhere, blocked access to the middle school gym where counseling was underway. People who had come to the school for counseling were known to turn around and go back home. Order was soon restored, but the caste was set. Five innocent people were dead, 11- and 13-year-old boys were in jail, and the national media weren't about to go away.

Dad told me his first view of the full hysteria, from atop a hill overlooking the middle school, reminded him of a Super Bowl. This seemed an odd analogy at first, but Dad unknowingly hit the bullseye. Tragedy creates its own blood sport among the media, especially television with its desire to strike ratings gold with instant images of suffering and cries of agony. In the thirst for sound bites of how people feel amidst tragedy, the groundswell of coverage becomes a game that grows larger than the story itself.

When I first heard about Littleton, I couldn't help but think of the dual tragedy about to begin. I knew the national media -- meaning everyone not local -- would soon invade a small town. Not so much to report about tragedy, but to add to it.

Communities like Jonesboro and Littleton lose their innocence in the face of shocking crime, but also in the exploitative way today's TV media creates the sensation of tragedy. At the very moments when vulnerability and emotion hang most precariously in the balance, the TV media -- with these graphics and sounds and 24-hour-a-day deadlines -- have the greatest hunger to feed the monster. This happens at a time of such sad desperation that it defies description.

Dad and many in Jonesboro were most offended by the national media's "get a story at all costs" approach. This included everything from phone calls at 3 a.m. to sudden knocks at the doors of victims' homes to covert attempts to get "inside" information. Few at home see this side of the story. TV's gatekeepers argue -- as they did many times when attempting to coax Dad into an interview -- that they are a conduit to a world that wants to know and understand what happened. Most in Jonesboro wished the national media, which represented to them that something had gone terribly wrong, would simply go away.

Normalcy, though impossible to achieve in gut-ripping grief, is what Jonesboro craved. And deserved.

Now that the media have finally moved on to the next big story, they leave behind bitterness and hard feelings. Quiet resentment will be directed toward a few local media-created "stars" who were seduced by the lure of the TV camera. Even in tragedy -- and perhaps because of it -- TV winks its knowing eye at the unconscious human desire to gain attention.

Dad said 95 percent of the national media "acted respectfully" in Jonesboro. But 15 bad apples are more than enough to help spoil a community; the other 285 are far from blameless. Each thinks of him/herself as only one needing a quote or sound bite, not part of 299 others who need a fresh angle for the day. In today's TV tragedy, the whole of the 300-headed monster is so much larger than the sum of its parts.

Paducah's superintendent meant, of course, that the media would be a big problem for Dad as an administrator, not as a person. But Dad learned a profound lesson: While TV news seeks to humanize tragedy for its audience, it too often doesn't do this humanely. I wish the audience at home knew this. Dad knows. Jonesboro knows. And now Littleton knows, too.

Roger Cooper is an associate professor of radio-TV-film. He is currently writing a book about his father's personal response to the Jonesboro tragedy.