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I wrote the following letter to my University of Colorado photojournalism students after two weeks of relentless coverage of that story.
Though it wasn’t the first, 20 years ago it seemed like it should be the last. Columbine started a cycle that unfortunately we don’t appear brave enough to stop. I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few days thinking of the families who let me deep into their fear and grief to photograph. We all shared a conviction that understanding this pain could bring and end to violence like this. I wish with all my being that it had.
May 4, 1999
Two weeks ago a horde descended upon Clement Park to cover the massacre at Columbine High School. There bereaved families and students found themselves face-to-face with more camera operators than I have seen anywhere, and that collision created a perfect laboratory for us to look at ourselves, the job we do and how the public reacts to our work.
Today was an interesting day for it seems to be the end of the initial media blitz. Monday tornadoes ravaged Oklahoma, killing an estimated 45 people. Off to the next disaster raced most of the out-of-towners, leaving Clement park to the curious visitors and shocked citizens that flock there daily.
Up through yesterday the public’s perception of the media had been steadily sliding downhill. The situations I’ll describe here are not the only reasons for the public disgust and distrust of the media. We’ve been building up public exhaustion with our behavior for years. The Columbine massacre just handily lays it all out before us.
The day this tragedy happened I raced out the door like all the other journalists in town and what I encountered near the scene of the shooting shook me. I spent that afternoon at an elementary school near Columbine where worried parents congregated in wait for their children. Their faces were a terrible sight. The radio and TV were reporting up to 25 dead, making the odds that their children had been injured or killed very real.
That’s a tough situation to photograph. Standing near someone that horrified and frightened makes my camera weigh a thousand pounds. People reacted to me in varying ways — some not noticing me at all, others seeming to understand why I was there. I was also scolded by one man who said, “get that camera out of my face.”
I waited a minute for him to cool down, and apologized to him.
Initially the media who were there acted as part of the scene. I loaned my cell phone out to at least five parents or grandparents. I was constantly asked for updates, and I gave as much information as I could as graciously as possible. I handed out business cards, encouraging anyone to call if they had any questions at all. Later I did get a call from a pair of parents who when I last saw them on that day still hadn’t found their children. They thanked me for my concern and help at the scene, and happily told me their kids were safe.
But as the numbers of photographers increased, the separation between the subjects and the journalists grew. Crying children hid behind their friends and families. A few cursed the cameras. More photographers arrived, some greeting each other with back slaps and smiles. Some bragged about the “great pictures” they had gotten.
I stood and watched with the worried families. How callous that seems to someone in trouble — to see the media react to it as if it were just another excuse to exploit misery for ratings and contests and profit.
I know both sides of that story, though. I think the photographers there who did act that way were just blocking out the horror of the situation in a convenient way. Many of us do that after a few too many troubling scenes. We make the camera a block against reality and shoot pictures as if it were all a play laid out for us to photograph.
We in the media desperately need to realize that our subjects are watching us, too. We must behave in a sensitive manner around the grief-stricken. We need to show that we care and that we do this job because the public cares. We must be ambassadors.
At too many funerals I have seen photographers and videographers arrive in shorts and T-shirts as if they were at a baseball game. Being behind a camera does not mean we are separate from the scene. On the contrary, big equipment and tripods make us stand out like nothing else can.
Please be professionals. Dress for the situation. Wear a tie. Don’t march around with cigarettes dangling from your lips, or worse yet, with a huge dip of Skoal under your lip. If we expect the respect of our subjects, our viewers, and the public that grants us the rights on which we operate, we must be respectful to them.
Please never forget as you enter the working world of journalism that it is the First Amendment under which we operate. But free speech is not a right held too dear by much of the public. In their view, free speech is fine as long as it doesn’t speak badly about them. Free speech is dandy unless they find it offensive in any way.
The only example we need to see is the persistent attempts at a constitutional amendment against flag burning. Why do politicians brandish that idea about so often even if they don’t believe it would be constitutional? Because the public finds the burning of a flag deeply offensive even if it is free speech.
We must deal with our subjects honestly and fairly. We cannot be lazy with the facts. We must maintain the trust of the public we serve. As a journalist I am as afraid of suddenly being the subject of a news story (again) as I am afraid of an IRS audit. That isn’t because I have anything to hide or be ashamed of. Based on experiences on both sides of the act of journalism, I fear that the truth would not be properly portrayed. I fear that I would be a sound bite or quote delivered in a careless context.
On the second day of coverage of the Columbine story it was evident the community was already tired of the growing horde of journalists. At memorial services bands of parishioners began to form human walls even though the media were still being remarkably well-behaved at that point. The consequences of our voraciousness were becoming evident.
At Clement park, many mourners and groups of students were outnumbered by the media everywhere they went. The week wore on and anyone with any shaky connection to the event had been telephoned relentlessly, badgered at the door or offered large sums of money to appear on questionable TV shows.
I’ve heard of two disturbing incidents (surely there are more) — one in which one photographer laid on the ground in the middle of a huddle of crying Columbine students, blasting up at their bowed heads with a flash. In another tale, a photographer chases a disturbed, crying subject down the street, blasting away with a camera.
What must be the public perception of this behavior? Do they see our actions in the field as separate from the final product they see on the TV screen or in print? I think yes. Clement park is a wondrous, sprawling example of that. It is the media that has drawn all those people to send offerings from across the country, or to bring their children to lay flowers or teddy bears on the ever-expanding mounds.
The satellite trucks have made the area the epicenter of grief. We draw them with our images, but they are taken aback when our cameras flash in their tearing eyes. To the public our product is separate from our work.
It is unfortunate that the public misunderstands the concept of privacy. I have long wished that every citizen understood that when they are in a public place they don’t have “privacy.” But the public feels that the right to privacy is something more akin to “the right to be left alone.” This is the only way I can explain why people would flock to a place surrounded by satellite trucks to grieve, and be angry when a camera pops up in front of them.
Saturday an estimated 7,000 people crowded the west steps of the state capitol to protest the NRA’s annual meeting in Denver. Fewer journalists were on hand to cover the event, already more than a week after the shooting. A grieving Columbine father spoke, followed by a family who had lost a son in a shooting. During one father’s speech a counter-protestor was pushed to the ground in a scuffle not far the podium. Most of the photojournalists, all doing their job by capturing a potentially explosive situation, turned away for a few seconds to photograph police dragging the counter-protestor away.
The speaker bemoaned the press for “scrambling to photograph that,” rather than pay attention to him. The crowd erupted in a cheer that gave me a chill. None of the photographers had done anything less than their job in that case, but the giant crowd showed immediately how uncomfortable they were with our actions in general. And surely most of the crowd realizes that without media coverage of the rally, it would have no effect beyond their ranks. They needed us there.
Monday the students of Columbine High returned to classes at a nearby school. As Chatfield students left to make way for the Columbine kids, they passed the small row of journalists reporting from across the street. Insults were hurled from car windows by students who hadn’t even been involved in the incident. A small army of parents stood on the school’s side of the road to chase away any journalists who wished to cross. Another group gave out fliers to Columbine students advising them of their “rights with the press.”
We are shooting ourselves in the foot with our own behavior. Competition for ratings, or circulation, or publication fees makes many journalists forget about the consequences of their actions. Sensationalist coverage breeds more disgust, reduces the public trust and hurts us again.
A touching moment happens in a park full of journalists and the dog pile begins. A Current Affair makes more money when people watch its sensational coverage, and other TV outlets feel the need to follow suit in pursuit of profit. Freelance photographers trip over each other chasing tears, stake out offenders’ homes, and badger neighbors only on the odd chance that they’ll make a few extra bucks.
This profession is not about money nor about winning contests. Journalism is about telling stories — carefully and professionally. If what you do in journalism ever becomes about money, find another career that will make more money for you. If what you do in journalism ever becomes about getting a picture or quote regardless of the effects on the innocent, find another career where you’re less likely to hurt someone.
This is not about money.
This is not about winning contests.
Causing pain or anger in the undeserving is not worth a picture or a sound bite with a news life of one day or less. Angering Pol Pot by brashly making a picture is one thing, angering and aggravating the innocent is another.
In the eyes of the media Columbine is now an old story. There are 45 new victims to cover in another state thanks to Mother Nature. Those journalists have raced off to that story leaving all the baggage of this one behind them, yet the families of the victims, their friends and classmates will be stuck with this story for the rest of their lives.
Please, as you enter the working world, think about what your subjects are seeing in you, and what they will remember about their experience with you after the flood lights have moved on. We need the support of the public to do our jobs well. We need the support of the public to guard our first amendment rights.
Journalism is a profession. Any field associated with that term bears a responsibility to the public — the medical profession, the legal profession, the education profession. From time to time we have the responsibility to expose the guilty with all our investigative talents. But we also have the responsibility to treat the innocent fairly and with careful, respectful consideration.
Let’s guard our professionalism. Know where that line falls.