The Hardest Beat
Updated: Mar 2, 2021
Columbia’s Society of Professional Journalists takes a hard look at traumatic coverage.
By Ufon Umanah and Gi Ferrigine
On November 8th, Columbia’s Society for Professional Journalists sponsored a panel on “Covering Trauma,” which really served as a meta-commentary on how journalists, many times, cover traumatic events unethically. When darkly comedic anecdotes like how a NBC reporter asked for an interview via Twitter from a student still in an active shooter situation are tossed around, unethical is an understatement. As student-activist Alfonso Calderon explained through his experience at Parkland, journalists should feel a responsibility when they “cover people who are at risk” of suicide, especially because of recent trauma.
The panel, moderated by Reed Alexander, JRN ‘20, was well-staffed to discuss this issue. Calderon spoke with fellow alumnus Cameron Kasky, GS ‘23, and reporter Kenneth Preston to discuss trauma through the lens of Parkland. On their wings, Psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Dr. Gail Seltz was to their right, while foreign correspondent and professor Judith Matloff was to their left. However, what was most troubling was the fact that much of the press at the time were responsible, many of the unethical incidents in Parkland were reminiscent of tactics used almost 20 years ago.
When a former Columbia student killed his ex-girlfriend and subsequently died of suicide in 2000, the press swarmed Ruggles Hall. The Columbia Daily Spectator reported that within four days, three newspapers had written 20 stories about the murder-suicide, and the story lead news broadcasts. For the press, getting the story out about this tragic event was of the utmost importance. Between the Associated Press, The New York Times, and The New York Post, descriptions of the incident and Columbia in the aftermath were straightforward yet meticulously detailed. The Post included in their write-up that Kathleen Roskot, the murdered lacrosse star, that “a literary journal with a picture of Jack Kerouac was left” on her face, on top of a description of her state that both the Post and the Times included.
Illustrated by Tunshore Longe
Most writing, however, focused on the shock and mourning of the community, and that means talking to sources. While one student told Spectator they felt most of the press were respectful, members of the press reportedly rang random numbers of Ruggles residents, solicited a picture of the murderer with the currency of beer, and snuck into Ruggles for dramatic shots of Roskot’s body. So efficient were these techniques that Roskot’s parents, and many Ruggles residents, learned about the incident, were through reporters. Students had extraordinarily negative reactions to this wall-to-wall coverage, as many felt that an intrusion so close to the tragedy made it difficult to grieve.
As it turns out, such concerns track with today’s understandings of trauma. Unlike natural disasters, specific personal traumas like mass shootings or sexual assaults, are more likely to lead to PTSD and suicidal thoughts. Dr. Saltztestified at the panel that if victims do not want to talk, “then making them talk is actually more likely to make them develop symptoms.”
Ultimately, as Matloff told the audience, “you don’t want to do any harm; you have to be respectful to the people you’re interviewing.” That can be tricky in an always-connected world, where competitive journalists rush to deliver a story to a fickle public. However, as Calderon testified in relation to the string of suicides that followed the Parkland shooting, “If you want a community to consider suicide as an option, try bringing them up to the point of almost fiction,saying that the most important thing that has ever happened in your town, in your life, was that 17 people were murdered, and then the second that it’s not relevant enough for you …. you just leave.” That spotlight, whether typed, printed, or broadcasted, can be destabilizing — going forward, journalists need to be careful and deliberate with its use.