Friday, October 7, 2016

Happening Fast, Reporting Faster: School Shootings and Reporting

Allison Cook

"The Library." Sounds so innocent. So simple, but it's not. As I sat in the theater at Ohio University and watched my peers re-enact the scenes that so many of us have come to know and fear, I couldn't help but be horrified in the media's actions.

When it comes to school shootings, people like to point their fingers at the media, gun control and mental illness, but this is not what this blog is about. At the end of the day, for the reporters, it is our job to get the truth of what happened out to the public. It is not our job to say what we think (unless we are writing an editorial) or why we think it happened. It happened. It was horrible. Now, get the facts right.

In the play, the media did not have a face. It was not an actor or actress, but instead something continuously mentioned. The main character, Caitlin Gabriel (played by Rachel Gaunce), was being blamed for exposing to the shooter, before she herself was shot (but not killed), where many of her peers were hiding. Throughout the story the media only reinforced the blame.
Photo Credit: Allison Cook   "The Library" is a play about
school shootings. It is showing at Ohio University until
October 8.
The Society of Professional Journalist's code of ethics says: "Take responsibility for the accuracy of their work. Verify information before releasing it," "Remember that neither speed nor format excuses accuracy," "Show compassion for those who may be affected by the news coverage. Used heightened sensitivity when dealing with (...) subjects who are inexperienced or unable to give consent," and "Diligently seek subjects of news coverage to allow them to respond to criticism or allegations of wrongdoing." Where are these codes in the minds of the reporters who are rushing to get the facts of the scene after [insert number of students killed here] have been found dead in the place of knowledge and growth?

In a Newsweek article by Max Kutner, titled "Mass Shootings and the News Media: A Connection," Kutner talks about the reasons why it can be harmful to rush covering all types of tragedies like school shootings. Kutner says, "Releasing misinformation or even accurate information too quickly can traumatize or re-traumatize survivors, or innocent people could be identified as suspects."

The latter statement hit very close to what happened to Gabriel in the play. One of the other survivors characters had mis-remembered the scene and put blame on Gabriel by using the media. After many reports came out, everyone began to blame her. The consequences for Gabriel and her family were bigger than they would have been if the media had not rushed to conclusions based on, what started as one witness.

The play did not take the dark turn that I thought it would. The writer did not go into the potential consequences on the survivor's mental health, when she is being blamed for the killings of other students. The writer does not go into how being isolated from her friends and how it feels to have no one believe you, although the audience gets a glimpse through Gabriel's failed attempts to reach out to one of her friends. The audience does get to see the monetary consequences, which were the family not receiving the adequate amount of compensation from survivor funds.

At the end of the play it is revealed that the media was wrong and Gabriel was innocent. She had not been the one to tell the shooter where her peers were hiding and had been wrongly identified. It had taken the police about seven months to get the whole story and finally close the case. Seven months that Gabriel had to not only deal with recovering from the gun shot and the loss of her friends and classmates, but also deal with the world not listening and believing her. Seven months the media messed up. What was that SPJ's code had said? Oh, "Remember that neither speed nor format excuses accuracy."

"The Library" is a fictional story based on the true school shootings that have taken place in America. "The Library" is also contains a lesson to be learned. We, as journalists, need to report what we know and what is true. It's more important to wait for the truth than to rush the facts just so the public can hear/read what happened.

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