When bad news breaks, the newsroom usually goes on adrenaline-fueled auto-pilot. Personal feelings get pushed aside for the moment. No time to feel. Barely enough time to get it right and get it online and in the paper.
But in the chaos the other morning as we tried to make sense of the senseless news coming out of Colorado, I couldn’t help feeling a little sick to my stomach to be complicit in the media feeding frenzy following the shooting.
Why did he do it? I have no idea, and don’t think we ever will, at least in terms that make sense to sane people. Still, my gut was telling me that all the media attention we were giving that sick bastard was exactly what he wanted.
And in all the gut-wrenching confusion that Friday morning, one voice spoke sense, to my heart anyway. The voice of Jordan Ghawi, the brother of one of the victims. His sister, 24-year-old sportscaster Jessica Ghawi, had recently blogged about narrowly escaping a mall shooting in Toronto, so she quickly came to the media’s attention.
And now her brother was being interviewed on live TV just hours after her slaying.
“I can name you the shooter at Columbine, I can name you the shooter in Norway and I can name you the shooter at Virginia Tech, but I can’t name to you a single victim,” Ghawi told an interviewer. “And I think this has gone far too long without us remembering the victims.”
Ghawi said he still didn’t know the name of his sister’s killer that awful Friday.
“I refuse to learn it,” he said. “The less his name is spoken on the air, the better off it will be.”
Of course, I have a job to do, and part of that job is printing the shooter’s name, along with other relevant facts surrounding the tragedy. There’s nothing wrong with the press doing its job. But to me there is also a sickening irony in the fact that Ghawi has made similar statements in the days since the shooting – often with the killer’s picture filling the screen while his comments are broadcast.
Yes, I know what the killer looks like, and have seen enough of him to last me a lifetime. The incessant display of that guy’s face is thoughtless at best, and I understand why some tell me they think it smacks of heartless media sensationalism.
I’m usually quick to defend us, and quick to correct anyone who says we print only the bad news. We print plenty of good stories, too. And it’s those stories – the ones that speak of the faith of families who find redemption in the face of tragedy, or raise funds for sick children, or even, occasionally, help right some terrible wrong – that stick with us at the end of the day. Those are the stories that make me proud to be a journalist.
Even when we hold our mirror up to the darker elements of our society, it isn’t our fault if people don’t like what they see. I usually think if anything, people ought to thank us for showing what’s wrong. Awareness of a problem, after all, is the first step to fixing it.
I’ve heard some say our national obsession with celebrity is partially to blame for those who seek notoriety through infamous acts. And yes, I personally think we in the media spend too little time on substance and too much on vacuous celebrity. When it’s someone as harmless and vapid as, say, a Kardashian, maybe there’s no greater price to pay than wasted time and space.
But intentionally or not, I think we need to be careful we don’t make celebrities out of the perpetrators of evil deeds.
It won’t change anything now, but I’ve asked our copy desk to stop using the killer’s picture in stories, unless there’s a compelling reason to do so. We certainly don’t need to be reminded what he looks like.
And out of respect to her brother’s wishes, I personally hope to remember Jessica Ghawi and the other victims of the Colorado shootings long after I’ve forgotten their killer’s name.
In addition to Jessica Ghawi, those slain that awful Friday were Alex Sullivan, a bartender celebrating his 27th birthday; John Larimer, a 27-year-old in the U.S. Navy; Micayla Medek, a 23-year-old Subway worker saving up for a trip to India; Jon Blunk, 26; Alex Teves, 24, and Matt McQuinn, 27, who all died gallantly shielding their girlfriends from the murderous gunfire; Alexander “AJ” Boik, an 18-year-old who dreamed ot attending art school; Gordon Cowden, a 51-year-old real-estate appraiser and father of two; Rebecca Wingo, 32, who was raising two daughters while working her way through college; Jesse Childress, a 29-year-old staff sergeant at Buckley Air Force Base; and Veronica Moser-Sullivan, 6, whose mother, Ashley Moser remains in a Colorado hospital with extensive injuries from a gunshot wound in the neck.
I’ll keep them in mind – and close to my heart – the next time bad news breaks, as a reminder that we can do good even in bad circumstances. We can raise awareness of the human beings at the center of media tragedies. We can help raise money for those still in Colorado hospitals recovering from their wounds.
We have a job to do, and it can be a good job if we remember to do it well.
Marc Charisse is the editor of The Evening Sun. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @esmcharisse.
Those wishing to help the victims of the Colorado shooting with mounting medical bills and other needs can send donations to COVA (Colorado Organization for Victim Assistance), 90 Galapago St., Denver, CO 80223. Checks should include “Aurora Tragedy” in the memo line. Online donations can be made through GivingFirst.org.