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:

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