Journalism should be ‘a culture of caring’
Once again, the death of innocent children in an American elementary school dominates the news. This time, the fatalities are a result of violent weather — a devastating tornado — not a deranged gunman. But our emotions of shock, sorrow and grief are the same, as are many of the questions. How could this happen? Why did some live while many died? How are surviving family members and friends coping with the unbearable loss of loved ones? Will they ever really recover?
Some of those asking such questions stand in front of the cameras, holding reporters’ notebooks or voice recorders. Still others take photos or video to capture the details on the scene. They are bearing witness so the rest in society can try to understand the import and impact of such an unfathomable act of God, nature, fate or bad luck. And many of those journalists are crying while they ask their questions, observe acres of destruction, gather their facts and compile their narratives.
Most of these are caring, professional reporters, not unfeeling “info-bots.” Certainly, there are notorious exceptions — on and off camera — of news media workers who manipulate people to garner emotional reactions. But, thankfully, these are rarer in an era where American tragedies and traumas arrive in waves and are universally known by just uttering a few words: Oklahoma City, Columbine, 9/11, Katrina, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Newtown and, once again, Oklahoma City.
Oklahoma City journalists have been frontline first responders through major crises during the last two decades: the bombing in 1995 that claimed 168 lives, killer tornadoes in 1999, the airplane crash in 2001 that claimed members of the Oklahoma State University basketball team and then more deadly tornadoes through the young 21st century, notably the one that struck on Monday afternoon, May 20, in Moore, a suburb of Oklahoma City, leaving a 17-mile path of destruction.
Contrary to the old newsroom myth stating that journalists are supposed to suspend any emotional involvement in their news coverage, a more enlightened generation of contemporary media workers realizes that observing the suffering of others indeed takes an emotional toll and carries serious responsibilities: Take care of yourself while being empathetic and respectful to those affected by tragic circumstances; ask questions sensitively so as not to retraumatize those dealing with loss; above all, be professional so audiences can better understand the world, especially in times of trouble.
Joe Hight, former managing editor of The Oklahoman newspaper and founding president of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, calls the current reform movement in the news media “a culture of caring” for journalists, their sources and communities affected by tragedy and trauma. Yes, print, broadcast and online reporters can be emotional while doing their jobs. And they can cry along with the rest of us at sorrowful times like these.
Mark H. Massé is a professor of literary journalism at Ball State University. He is the author of “Trauma Journalism: On Deadline in Harm’s Way” (2011, Bloomsbury) and other book-length works of narrative nonfiction as well as two novels.