Too many times in my 40-plus years as a journalist I’ve been shamed by the antics of my profession. The latest came when the national media descended on Blacksburg in he aftermath of the shootings at Virginia Tech in April.
It wasn’t enough that the Virginia Tech Community faced the horror of 32 students and faculty murdered by a fellow student. The rudeness of national anchors, famous correspondents and ambitious freelancers left a sour taste in the mouths of many Southwestern Virginians, myself included.
Roanoke Times reporter Beth Macy sums a lot of it up in an excellent piece for PoynterOnline:
Roger Shepherd had no clue how she’d pulled it off, but somehow Katie Couric managed to get his cellphone number. And he was not happy about it.
Not long before she called, Shepherd had learned that his brother-in-law, Jarrett Lane, was dead, a victim of the Virginia Tech shootings.
And now Katie was on the phone, asking for an interview.
Within hours, TV trucks were lined up like train cars in front of the family’s house in the small town of Narrows, which people in these parts pronounce "Nairz."
But the national media didn’t know that. We at The Roanoke Times did.
Beth also discusses the effect the tragedy had on her and her collegues at The Roanoke Times. She talks of the difficulty of calling loved ones of those who died in Blacksburg. I was at the Times during the Vietnam war and one of my tasks as a junior member of the staff was to call the loved ones of a soldier killed in that war and gather information about the story. I never got used to making those calls.
I was at the Pentagon on 9/11 and still have trouble looking at the photographs I shot that way. At one point on that day, I saw a man in uniform sitting alongside Columbia Pike and crying. As I focused my telephoto lens on him, he looked up and mouthed the words: "Please don’t." I lowered my camera. I couldn’t take the shot.
Even for someone who spent four decades covering war, violence and mayhem around the world, the horror of the Tech shootings brought back too many memories and I lost too much sleep for too long afterwards. I wrote two pieces about the events, one here on Muse and then expanded those thoughts on Capitol Hill Blue.
Yet nearly a month after the shootings I still have trouble dealing with it. Maybe three years away from the grind of daily journalism has dulled my cynicism. Maybe I’m just geting old. I don’t know.
Yet I’m sure that the memories of a boorish national media leaves even more scars on the Tech community. The behavior of those who were once my colleagues left me both ashamed and glad that I escaped the "get the story at any cost" cesspool.