Colorado tragedy requires understanding — of victims' pain and suspect's motives

There have already been hundreds of thousands of words said and written about the Aurora theater shooting tragedy and I know that people get over-saturated with information after a while.

I had an easier column in mind, about an interesting coffee house in Alamosa, Co., near where I am writing this, but being in Colorado during this horror has allowed me to see both national and local coverage of the event, and two issues concerning that need, I think, to be addressed.

The issues are linked: coverage of the victims and their families and coverage of the alleged shooter.

This is probably a good time to mention that I do not speak for the Tampa Bay Times on issues of policy. These are my thoughts, based on nearly four decades of news experience.

On social media, within a very few hours, people were complaining that not enough coverage was being given the victims and, conversely, too much to the person who allegedly shot 70 people, including children, killing 12 and wounding the rest.

Why weren't the victims getting covered? Because at first nobody was sure who they were and then, as the grim process of identification went on, law enforcement, properly, waited until next of kin had been notified. Nobody wants to be responsible for somebody learning through a news report that a loved one has died.

And I can tell you after having been a reporter for 37 years that there are frequently times when we have the names of victims and restrain ourselves out of cooperation with law enforcement and common decency. Jessica Ghawi, an up-and-coming sports journalism intern who died in the shooting, was named hours before others, but only because her family notified Denver area media.

And victim coverage has other problems. Health care providers are prohibited by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 and its subsequent modifications from releasing information without permission. One shooting victim whose boyfriend died because he covered her body with his couldn't find out his condition for hours because she wasn't related.

And victims and their families don't always want to be covered.

Over the years, I have had telephones slammed down in my ear, doors slammed in my face, been screamed at and threatened by people who did not want me imposing on their grief.

On Dec. 4, 1981, when Elana Goldstein, 14, was shot at her Quail Hollow school bus stop and, brain dead, was on life support at University Community Hospital, I was assigned to go and talk to her parents. I so hated the idea that I considered wrecking my car rather than intrude. It turned out they wanted to talk and made me promise to keep writing about the case until her killer was caught. I did. I wrote a column about her and other young victims of unsolved murders, on the anniversary of her death, until I retired 21 years later.

I also saw top Times management withhold information about Robert Stethem, who had local connections and was aboard TWA Flight 847 when it was hijacked by terrorists in 1985. We knew Stethem was a U.S. Navy diver and didn't want to provide his captors with that information. Unfortunately they figured it out for themselves and he was murdered. It brought home to me how very potent information can be.

Rather than go on with examples forever … my point is that media outlets and the people who work for them do care about victims of tragedies and their families, but bringing the information to you effectively and humanely is more important sometimes than doing it quickly. At this writing, CNN is into its second day of hour after hour of interviews with survivors and family members of those who died and of extensive coverage of memorial tributes and ceremonies.

The flip side of the issue concerns coverage of the alleged shooter himself (and note that the "alleged" applies until a court says differently).

A frequent argument, and one voiced by some of the victims and family members, is that it appears these crimes are sometimes committed by people seeking publicity and notoriety, and that writing or broadcasting about them encourages others to do the same. But how do you avoid that? When you hear about an atrocity, one of the first burning questions is "Who did it?" and that is followed closely by "Why?"

You can't get to the second question without answering the first. Motives are frequently much more complex than just publicity and, importantly, can lead to better understanding of what may have stopped the tragedy.

If your kids are making pipe bombs, nearly 100 of them, in your cellars like the shooters in the Columbine tragedy, should you know about it? Should you check? Are there things about our mental health care delivery and legal systems that should be modified to help prevent tragedies like this? Should you be able to buy 6,000 rounds of ammunition online? (My guess is the comments section in the online version of this column will have some lively thoughts about that.)

Painful as it is, it is almost always better to act from an abundance rather than a paucity of information. Leave a gap in reliable information and mis- and dis-information will rush in to fill the voids.

Hours after the Aurora shootings, conspiracy theories were already starting to clot the blogosphere. One prominent one: James Holmes was the brainwashed dupe of a government plot to create panic and cause support for a U.N. small arms treaty being signed in New York so the antigun forces can use international law as a backdoor way to take people's guns away.

The treaty, which has nothing to do with individual gun ownership, has not been written yet and is only being discussed in context. Such things always upset people concerned that "they" are going to take our guns away … and have been for decades.

Want to know the truth? Want to know where he allegedly got the equipment the bloggers are saying the government provided him with?

You can't know without knowing who he is.

And if you think an unnamed person should be tried in private without transparency, you should remember that there are countries where that happens all the time.

I have been to a couple.

They aren't nice places.

Colorado tragedy requires understanding — of victims' pain and suspect's motives 07/27/12 [Last modified: Friday, July 27, 2012 9:42pm]

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