Apr 24, 2007

Getting the story: Covering heartbreaking tragedy at what cost?

by Hilary Dyer, Opinion Editor
To those who lost someone at Virginia Tech, I would like to express my sincerest sympathy. Know that you have been in my prayers. As a writer, I believe in the power of words, but as a person I understand that in these times, nothing anyone can say will heal the pain.

I was hesitant to write this article for several reasons. First because I was so frustrated with the media coverage of the tragedy that occurred on April 16. Secondly because it then became popular for every journalist to get up on their soapbox and cry out that the media was being insensitive, all the while continuing to still chase down weeping parents asking for an interview. And then also, I felt uncomfortable with the thought of baring my soul to the entire campus.

Last Tuesday I drove to Virginia Tech along with a few other members of the Champion staff. I was unsure as to why I was going. I absolutely dreaded the idea of having to interview anyone. The only reason I could come up with is that I wanted to be there among that community. I wanted to stand by their side. I wanted to show support and love somehow.

As we arrived I saw journalists from all over the world traipsing around campus, some with their narrow reporter’s notebooks and voice recorders, others with a microphone and a video camera.  They were all looking for a victim. Someone who was hurting, someone whose life had been shattered in the past few days. Someone who had a dramatic story to tell, whose tearful face could be run across the front page.

I looked at the faces of the Virginia Tech students and my heart ached for them. I understood how they felt. I looked at the journalists and felt complete disdain. I wished I had chosen another profession.

I didn’t ask anyone any questions, I didn’t want to. The press pass around my neck did not validate anything. I had no right to ask anything of these people. 
         
I’d been praying that all the pain from several years ago would not flood back in these moments, but how could it not? Suddenly I was 16 again, holding my two-year-old cousin on my lap, waiting with her in hope that someone was going to find her dad soon. My uncle, just  10 years older than myself, had been missing in the woods of Vermont for the past few days. Search and rescue groups, as well as all our friends and family had been out looking for him. The media had been hanging around in our driveway, waiting for a story.

I had been trying to keep my little cousin out of the way, and was playing with her in the grass when I heard some commotion in the front of the house and walked around to see what was going on. A journalist walked up to me. “They just found the body. Who are you? Do you have a comment?” she asked.

I don’t think I said anything to her. All that registered in my head was “body” and knowing what that meant. That it wasn’t just a body they found. It was my uncle, who was more like my older brother, who had taught me so much about living like Christ, and he was gone.

I just started sobbing and was holding my little cousin as close to me as I could, trying to keep both our heads down and away from the camera that followed us around as I looked for her mother.

 didn’t watch any news or pick up a newspaper for a long time after that. Members of the media seemed coldhearted and cruel.
   
And standing on the Virginia Tech campus, I was reminded of all that, and wondered how in the world I ever became a part of this.

But more than anything, my heart started to break for the people around me. Tears flooded my eyes as I remembered the pain and how abrasive it is to the soul. The burden for the friends and family and victims of Virginia Tech sat like a weight on my chest and everything in me wanted to collapse to my knees on the sidewalk and cry out to God on behalf of them. I was wishing I had been there alone, not walking along with my peers.

When we entered the War Memorial Chapel, I felt relieved. A few people were in there, sitting and crying by their selves. I stood in the back and prayed for a while and was about to go sit with a girl when we were asked to leave because a member of my group had started taking photos inside the chapel.

It was difficult to contain my anger. I felt righteously indignant. I wanted to take these photographers and journalists by the shoulders and tell them that they understood nothing unless they personally had experienced this kind of mourning. I wanted to step in front of the camera to somehow act as a protective barrier to the grief-stricken students around me.

I spent the rest of the day standing back from the crowds. I watched as members of the Virginia Tech community walked past me with heartache written across their faces, and it evoked that same sorrow in me. I recalled all of the devil’s attacks of doubt and anger that came against my family when we lost my uncle. It was through those recollections that I realized what I was there for that day. I was there to listen to the Spirit and to pray for those around me. I hope that’s how I will always function as a journalist. To be one of the first to put the notebook down and lift my heart in
prayer.

Contact Hilary Dyer at hadyer@liberty.edu.
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