A Plea To Journalists:Tread Carefully in Marinette

November 30, 2010

This was written by a woman who was raised here and shares her concerns as a journalist about how her hometown should be treated in the wake of the school hostage situation here yesterday.

By Jessica Opoien, jessica.opoien@iowastatedaily.com

Posted on November 30, 2010

  • jessica-opoien by Jessica Opoien
  • I’m wearing purple today. I’m wearing purple because that’s what I can do from 469 miles away.

    Yesterday, a 15-year-old student held a class hostage at Marinette High School, in Marinette, Wis. Armed with two firearms and a knife, the student kept 25 students (some were released throughout the day) and a teacher confined to the classroom for more than five hours.

    Marinette High School. That’s my high school. Purple and white, the colors of the Marinette Marines. Valerie Burd, the social studies teacher who’s been an invaluable part of my life since the seventh grade — and who has been so important to so many other students over the years.

    What were his motives? I don’t know. How does a 15-year-old obtain those deadly weapons? I don’t know. Now that Sam Hengel has died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, we may never know.

    These, and many other questions, will be raised in the days and weeks to come. And as I anticipate the media storm that’s bound to hit, I cringe with frustration.

    Journalism is my calling — my love. But there’s a (fine-lined) difference between journalism and media frenzy, and I fear the frenzy will outrank in this situation. So, in the aftermath, I find myself with the overwhelming urge to wrap my hometown in a hug and tell my big, bad profession to just back off and leave it alone — and, if they’re going to press on, to get it right.

    Do you know what it’s like to watch your hometown turn into an international story? It’s surreal to watch your high school’s name splayed first across local media, then state outlets, until you’re reading a story about the place that housed your high school classes and Homecoming dances in the New York Times.

    To do this, and then try to separate your feelings as a journalist from your feelings as an alum, as a member of the community, who’s taking it all in from a college that’s a state away — it’s damn near impossible.

    I won’t criticize any news outlet’s handling of the hostage situation as it unfolded. Everyone did the best they could with the resources they had, to provide information to a very concerned public.

    But this story I found, from WFRV — usually, my Wisconsin news station of choice — epitomized everything that makes me sick about the way this story is likely to unfold. “Social media plays big role in Marinette hostage information,” the headline reads.

    They’re right, of course. It did play a big role. It played a huge role in spreading misinformation and rumors, which resulted in several false reports of deaths and injuries. (Update: the outlet that got the social media story right was my hometown paper, the Eagle Herald).

    Was social media helpful in some ways? Sure. But WFRV’s story is an example of updating for the sake of updating — of scraping together a story when there’s nothing else to say.

    And that’s the kind of attitude that won’t do anything but add more grief to a town that is shaken and shocked to its core.

    I imagine, as the morning “news” shows start making calls and circling in to get their piece of this tragic puzzle, that a few stories and angles will emerge, aside from the obvious Five W’s. Because, when you report on a tragedy in a small community — unless you are that community’s journalism outlet — you simply can’t do it justice. That truth is evident in the Marinette, Wis./Menominee, Mich. Eagle Herald’s coverage — one of the only publications that have really done it right, so far. Others can only skim the surface or tell a few disjointed pieces of the story. And that’s what worries me. What keeps me up, sick to my stomach, at 2 a.m. (At least, that is what I tell myself. But the cause could quite likely be the gravity of this entire situation).

    I see the following angles and approaches emerging:

    1) The heroic teacher. Certainly, this is a valid story. She’s nothing short of heroic, and I could write pages about the good she did in this situation, about the good she’s done for me and so many other students. About how she’s the best possible person to handle a situation like this. But this heroic teacher will not want the attention that will come, inevitably, with the media storm that hits. So maybe this is me being too attached, too involved in the situation — but I think her privacy ought to be respected.

    2) Interviews with people who don’t know what they’re talking about. You know how it goes. The people who know the story aren’t going to open up to just any member of the press, and the ones who are excessively willing to talk won’t have a clue of what they’re talking about. And some media outlets won’t know the difference.

    3) Why weren’t authorities called until shortly before 4 p.m. if the classroom was taken hostage between 1:30 and 2 p.m.? That’s an excellent question. But the answer comes in the form of another question. How could anyone have known? The sad truth is, all the elements at play here are incredibly conducive to this situation staying under wraps for as long as it did. The class was watching a movie. The lights were off. The door was shut. How could anyone on the outside know something was wrong? The pieces came together slowly, and authorities acted swiftly as soon as they discovered the danger.

    4) Finger-pointing. I wasn’t there. Most of the people who will provide commentary on the situation weren’t there either. The facts are emerging, slowly — but they’re not all there, yet. Give it time.

    Consider this my plea, to the big, bad media outlets across the state and country about to swarm, to tread carefully. Do your jobs as journalists, and do them well. Be sensitive and compassionate. Seek truth and report it, and minimize harm, as the SPJ Code of Ethics would have you do.

    As for me, I’m heartened by the way my community has banded together in the face of tragedy. Marinette, hold on to one another, and let this tragedy strengthen your ties. I’m heartened by my friends here at Iowa State, who have been inspired to reach out to their loved ones in light of this reminder of life’s fragile nature.

    Because this could have happened in any town. It happened in mine, yesterday.

    So, today, I’m wearing purple. Because it’s all I can do, from here.

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