Journalism is not supposed to be easy. One of the most difficult responsibilities reporters face is covering emotionally sensitive events—a duty we’re tasked with executing even when the horror hits close to home. This was the challenge the Newtown Bee and the Aurora Sentinel newspapers met in the wake of the mass shootings that nearly destroyed their communities, and the one Virginia Tech’s Collegiate Times and Northern Illinois University’s Northern Star took on by bravely covering the killing sprees that rocked their campuses.
And now—following the murder of six University of California at Santa Barbara students last Friday by another student, Elliot Rodger—the student-run papers of UCSB are the latest media outlets compelled to uphold this principle. But instead, The Bottom Line weekly announced that it would skirt the subject in an initial effort to “minimize the emotional harm” for their student reporters and photographers.
In an op-ed published on the website of UCSB’s weekly student-run newspaper, Executive Editor Hannah Davey writes:
“As stated in the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, a code we at The Bottom Line strive to uphold every day in our reporting, we are to minimize harm, whether physical or emotional. Ethical journalists should show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. After extensive discussions among our Editorial Staff, advisor and alumni, we have decided to not immediately publish an article on the recent tragedy in our community of Isla Vista to minimize the emotional harm for our reporters, photographers and multimedia journalists. Before we are journalists, we are Gauchos and feel we need our time to mourn, process and recover from this senseless violence.”
The paper’s decision has invited criticism from alumni, students and the national media, igniting a debate that has spread from the article’s comment section to the greater Twittersphere. As one commenter writes, “I understand the desire to not emotionally upset reporters, however, many writing for TBL aim to one day be reporters and sadly the news is full of tragic events that must come to public light. …It is devastating that these tragic events occurred, but this is the time to rise to them and meet the challenge that life brings and hope the truth prevails.”
The self-imposed embargo also appears to be working proof for critics’ main argument in the recent debate over putting trigger warnings on college syllabi: that millennials are dangerously entitled and coddled, and therefore incapable of handling the harsh realities of adulthood. It’s true that student journalists are technically “journalists in training,” but it’s hard to see the lesson in asking that they withhold from covering one of the biggest stories to ever hit their community, purely for the sake of sparing them nightmares. Instead, the real lesson should be about how best to cover the tragedy without commodifying and sensationalizing it, which has always been a tough balance for the media to strike.
Fortunately, UCSB’s main student-run paper, The Daily Nexus, has extensively covered the crisis on a number of fronts (photos, features, op-eds) and without any major issues, which makes The Bottom Line’s initial decision even more dubious. However, the paper did eventually acquiesce yesterday with a single story that seemed like more of a gesture than an attempt to really cover the issue, as it came out a full 72 hours after the event occurred. But better late than never, I guess.