In late May – or maybe early June – of 1999, I ended up at a rave in a field on the outskirts of Denver. I was driving cross-country and I wasn’t thinking about our geography. Like many raves at the time, it was a mix of folks ages 16-30. I set up my tent and was sitting in it writing in my journal when some teens asked me if they could come in. They were trying to light their cigarettes and it was too windy and they didn’t have a tent. I invited them in and we got to talking. I asked where they were from and they looked down. “Littleton,” they said. “Is that near here?” I asked, ignoring the warning signs that I was putting my foot in my mouth as their eyes got big with surprise. And then it dawned on me. Columbine. Sure enough, this group of teens were all from Columbine and they were all there when their classmates were savagely killed. I decided not to ask them about the day itself, but asked how it’s been since. What I heard was heartbreaking. They had dropped out of school because the insanity from the press proved to be too much to deal with. They talked about not being able to answer the phone – which would ring all day and night – because the press always wanted to talk. They talked about being hounded by press wherever they went. All they wanted was to be let alone. So they dropped out of school which they said was fine because it was so close to the end of the year and everything was chaos and no one noticed.
Everything about what happened in Newtown is horrible. And as the public processes it, I understand the need to talk about the issues. Mental health. Gun control. Violence in society. Turning killers into celebrities. Disenfranchisement of youth. There are a lot of topics that need to be seriously discussed and, for better or worse, there’s nothing like a crisis to propel those issues into the public consciousness.
But please, please, please… can we leave the poor people of Newtown alone? Can we not shove microphones into the faces of distraught children? Can we stop hovering like buzzards waiting for the fresh meat of gossipy details? Can we let the parents of the deceased choose when and where they want to engage with the public to tell their story? Can we let the community have some dignity in their grief rather than turning them and their lives into a spectacle of mourning?
Yes, the media are the ones engaging in these practices. But the reason that they’re doing so is because we – the public – are gawking at the public displays of pain. Our collective fascination with tragedy means that we encourage media practices that rub salt into people’s wounds, all for the most salacious story. And worse, our social media practices mean that the media creators are tracking the kinds of stories that are forwarded. And my hunch is that people are forwarding precisely those salacious stories, even if to critique the practices (such as the interviews of children).
How can we step back and demand dignity in reporting on tragedy? And how do we not play into this ugly dynamic as a public? How do we let grieving peoples choose when and how to tell their stories? I don’t have answers, but all I can think about are those kids in Littleton whose lives were shattered by the deaths of their classmates only to be further harmed by reporters intent on getting a scoop. Let’s not ruin any more lives than have already been destroyed. We need a media whose mantra is to do no additional harm.
Update: I believe that journalists should create opportunities for people who want to tell their stories to share, but there’s a huge difference between creating opportunities and hounding people. Just because people are coming out into their community to mourn doesn’t mean that they want their image blasted onto national TV. And just because people are physically in a public space doesn’t mean that they’re public figures. Let people have an opportunity to speak, but let them mourn without being pressured to do so if that’s what they need.