Covering the unimaginable: The role of student publications depends on healing process

Covering the unimaginable: The role of student publications depends on healing process

This article is part of a series from a 1999 edition of Communication: Journalism Education Today. Also in this series:

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By Jack Zibluk |Assistant Professor of Journalism, Arkansas State University

There really seems to be no answer.

When young people are killed or hurt at a school, students, parents, teachers, administrators, local officials, professionals and clergy grope for answers in the aftermath.

Each situation is unique. The reasons behind each are just as individual and always complex. The common denominator is that no one, not even the individually affected person, can heal themselves. Every one can help.

Student media may help or hinder the healing process. The proper role, according to Russell Dixon, clinical psychologist with St. Bernard’s Regional medical center in Jonesboro, Ark., “depends on where the school is in the healing process.”

Dixon was director of the counseling center at Arkansas State University on March 24, 1997 when two boys, 11 and 13, shot and killed four classmates and a teacher at Westside Middle School. The community immediately mobilized, and Dixon was one of the primary coordinators of the effort. Counselors, teachers and clergy met individually with students, parents and teachers to work with them on their specific needs. The school re-opened, and classes started less than two weeks later.

Today, Westside is almost eerie in its normalcy. The school proudly displays pictures of its honors graduates and trophies. Smiling students walk through the halls. It is spotless.

There are no memorials to the dead.

“We want to be as normal as possible,” said Dick Young, superintendent of schools. Young started at Westside in the fall of 1998. The previous superintendent announced his retirement before the shootings. After the shootings, in the spring of ’98, the student yearbook printed a one-page “in memorial” with a picture of the school bedecked with white ribbons and a poem.

That was the last mention of the tragedy in the student media.

When school started in the fall, not a word was mentioned in the student newspaper and there was no retrospective on the tragedy in the spring of ’99. Young said he discouraged any mention of it. Young said he thinks that the Westside staff should work with students on an individual basis. “It’s an intuitive thing. We get to know our students and their needs. If there’s trouble, we work with them one on one,” he said.

Student media has no role in his approach to deal with the aftermath of the shootings. He said any further attention, even positive coverage of the heroic efforts of staff and students or memorials to the dead, would draw unwanted attention and raise painful, perhaps harmful, memories. “We don’t want to pick at the scabs,” he said. “We want them to heal.”

At Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., the student media took a different approach.

“We’re getting a lot of attention,” said Marilyn Saltzman, director of communication for the Jefferson County School system in which Columbine is located. “We’re dealing with a lot of media all the time, even after four months.”

She said she was sure the student newspaper and yearbook would address the aftermath of the April 20, 1999 rampage of two students who killed 12 other students and a teacher before turning their guns on themselves.

Clearly, though, Columbine is addressing its issue in a more public fashion than Westside. On Aug. 15, 1999, with the re-opening of the school, Principal Frank D’Angelis presided over a “take back the school day,” in which students returned to the school for the first time in four months under the klieg lights of television crews. The news crews agreed to keep a respectful distance and they flew no helicopters overhead, but students and staff still talked to the media.

“We decided to work with the media,” Saltzman said. “We wanted people to know we’re taking our school back.”

Dixon does not necessarily favor either Columbine’s more public approach to the healing process or Westside’s more private one. “The key thing,” he said, “is to know where your school is (in the healing process) and make your plans from there.”

He said Columbine’s situation is more complicated and difficult than Westside’sbecause those who were affected by the killings had four months to consider the trauma before returning to school. There was much more physical damage at Columbine, which reminded students more of the tragedy.

“When something like this happens, it’s critical to deal with it immediately,” he said.

He noted that the Westside students returned to school less than two weeks after the shootings and began immediately to try to return to a sense of normalcy. Their fears didn’t have as much of a chance to take hold. Since Columbine students had the summer off, they faced their traumas months after the original shock.

In that time, the psychological wounds might deepen.

Kathy Lawrence, director of student publications at the University of Texas, Austin, cautions student journalists not to become too involved in spot-news coverage as a tragedy occurs.

“If students wish to cover tragedies as they happen, the school may run the risk of liability and lawsuits if the students take risks beyond what is prudent and expressed by us verbally and in writing,” Lawrence said.

She suggests advisers should have guidelines in place about how to cover tragedies before they occur.

“Obviously, the measures needed for a 15-year-old high school student may be different from those for a 21-year-old college senior with two pro internships under the belt. Take reasonable care to ensure personal safety, obey law enforcement, do not interfere with officers,” she said. “We can’t be held liable, but this will haunt us for the rest of our days.”

No matter what the circumstances, Dixon said student media should not ignore the aftermath of tragedies.

“In each case, student media has a role to play,” he said. “But each case is unique so the right answers may be different.”

If the event is recent, student media may point out ways to deal with tragedy and serve as a referral service, pointing out where to go for help.

However, he said it would be a mistake to dwell on the situation.

“These people will remember it all their lives. It’s important not to re-hash the tragedy, That serves no purpose,” she said.

Lawrence also suggests caution, but she said student media should not shy away from coverage.

“We must weigh special considerations — the school community’s right to know versus our responsibility not to inflame or increase anguish about the event,” she said.

“To ignore or downplay an event? Ridiculous. What will the students at any high school where a shooting has occurred remember as they go through their adult lives? That incident, along with, we hope, lots of positive things about relationships and learning. But the incident won’t be erased from anyone’s mind, and the student medium has a perfect opportunity to play a community leadership role in helping people cope and recover.”

The role of the student media may differ from the role of the professional press.

“The event must be placed in perspective,” Lawrence stressed. “The student medium in most cases won’t be offering minute-by-minute coverage. It doesn’t need to rehash that coverage but to offer a broader and longer perspective. Often the student perspectives over time will be the more meaningful — certainly more so than the camera jostling and needless overkill we saw in some of the incidents last year, especially from electronic media.”

Dixon agreed. He, too, said it is important to put the story in perspective. After the initial reporting, he recommended addressing specific needs as they arise.

“The most important thing is to listen,” Dixon said. “If there is a problem a lot of students are facing, do a story. But if there is not, you’re not helping anyone by bringing it up again.”

As time goes on, he said it is appropriate to do annual memorials for those who have died and features on those who helped, either quietly or heroically.

“It’s going to be on people’s minds. The student media can help focus attention on those who did good. They can serve as examples,” Dixon said. “That need will never go away.”


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