Reporting on tragedies is difficult, but it’s part of the job

When I heard yesterday about the tragedy at Umpqua Community College, I couldn’t help but recall the awful day at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007, when 32 people were killed. I was in the newsroom that morning just up the road at The Roanoke Times. The reports quickly changed from shots fired to people killed. We were in shock, we were sad, we were angry, we wanted to help. But we also had a job to do.

Our editors led us well that day and the days that followed. We reported the story that day and every day for more than a year. It wasn’t easy for the reporters who had to interview witnesses and people who had lost loved ones and friends. The reporters and editors worked hard for weeks to tell the stories and display images as respectfully as possible. The event happened in our backyard, so we were sure to be more sensitive than the national media that swooped in for a week  then left for the next big story.

The people directly affected by this tragedy in Oregon need our prayers and support. No one is hurting more than them. The reporters there, especially the local ones, need our prayers as well. Their’s is a most difficult job right now. They want to tell the stories, hopefully in a respectful way, but they are wondering how to do it. Journalistic ethics demands that those reporters seek truth and report it. But those same ethics also demand that they minimize harm and treat sources as human beings deserving of respect.

No reporter hopes for these assignments, but sadly they come too often. The Roanoke Times won awards for its coverage of the Tech shootings. We were grateful that our work was recognized, but we were never happy about it.

Much is being written already about the news media’s role. Here is a sampling of what I’ve seen so far:

Finding the truth in investigative pieces

Investigative journalism depends largely on data from public documents and databases that have often been created from public documents. But, as we have been talking about in the Investigative Reporting class I teach at Cedarville University, that data only tells you so much.

A case in point is the story below about how reporters didn’t completely understand the information that other researchers had presented about the issue of gun control. Follow the link in the tweet below to learn more about this story.

Last week our class visited the Dayton Daily News and attended a meeting that involved some members of the newspaper’s investigative team. As we tossed around story ideas I made a comment about something that might skew the notion one of the editors had. Another editor immediately jumped in and reminded everyone that you must report on and around the data. He said it is often true that the original conlcusions that might be drawn from the data aren’t always 100 percent what the reporter thinks. And sometimes those notions aren’t even close.

It was a great reminder to the students that reporting is much more than looking things up. You have to ask a lot of questions of the right people. I always tell students to challenge their assumptions when they report, so that when the start to write they know what the story is truly about.

Cedarville students take advantage of opportunity to cover Ben Carson’s visit to campus

From left, Josh Burris, Anna Dembowski and Campbell Bortel worked together to cover Ben Carson's visit to Cedarville University.

From left, Josh Burris, Anna Dembowski and Campbell Bortel worked together to cover Ben Carson’s visit to Cedarville University. (Photo courtesty of Scott Huck)

When a presidential candidate comes to campus it provides a unique opportunity for journalism students to cover a story outside of the campus bubble.

Republican Dr. Ben Carson was on the Cedarville University campus Tuesday afternoon, and our students got to report on a national story. Carson held a news conference outside and spoke at a rally in the chapel.

Anna Dembowski, a journalism major and editor of Cedars, wrote about what Carson had to say about his vision for the presidency while he was on campus. If you missed it, her story is an excellent recap of what Carson said. She did a second story about Carson’s views on what the next generation needs to succeed. Anna also live Tweeted the event.

Photographer Campbell Bortel did a great job of capturing the event in pictures.  Take a minute and look at the photos.

Of course, we also have a good video report from Josh Burris, Cedars’ multimedia person this year.

We don’t get stories like this to cover often, but when we do it’s great to see the students step up and do it well.

Josh Burris records Ben Carson's news conference at Cedarville University on Sept. 22.

Josh Burris records Ben Carson’s news conference at Cedarville University on Sept. 22. (Photo by Campbell Bortel)