Thoughts on Media in light of Sandy Hook Elementary Shooting – from a Columbine Mom

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CarolynMearsedittedFirestorm Expert Council Member Carolyn Lunsford Mears, Ph.D., received her doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies from the University of Denver. As a parent of a Columbine High School student exposed to the shootings, she conducted dissertation research into the impact of the tragedy on schools and families. Her research, Experiences of Columbine Parents: Finding a Way to Tomorrow, was recognized as the Outstanding Qualitative Dissertation of the Year by the American Educational Research Association (AERA).

In response to requests for information about the distinctive research approach she developed for her dissertation, she authored Interviewing MearsBookfor Education and Social Science Research: The Gateway Approach (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), which was selected as a finalist as AERA Book of the Year 2010.

Her anthology, Reclaiming School in the Aftermath of Trauma: Advice Based on Experience, provides real-life stories of traumatic events—school shootings, natural disaster, acts of terrorism, personal abuse and victimization—and offers insight into the effects of trauma on learning. Each chapter describes approaches that educators, administrators, students, and staff found helpful as they returned their school or university to the business of teaching and learning.

The most important priority at the moment is safety, and that is more than physically evacuating people from the danger zone. Psychologically and emotionally, trauma victims are still acutely at risk. (In fact, the type of reporting I am seeing right now is probably engendering vicarious trauma for people not even remotely connected to the school.)

At this point, for a stranger to stick a microphone in the face of a 4th grader and ask if he heard gunfire or screaming, or to describe if children were crying and asking for their mothers is hugely disruptive. This serves no purpose, except to sensationalize and further victimize those who are most vulnerable. Kids are not a source of any relevant news. All that can be achieved is that the public gets to see a child in shock.

Cardinal rule: The media should not interview young victims, even if they seem okay and even with the parent’s permission. It serves no purpose.  The press can get the confirmed facts about the events, including what was seen and what was heard, from officials — let them interview the kids and other witnesses; they’ve been trained to do so.

Media serves a vital role in letting people know the facts, where to go to pick up their kids, what is being done to help, where to get help for themselves and their kids, what to expect in the future, etc.  Information about meetings, resources, memorial events, etc. is an appropriate focus, and a service to the community. Displaying raw grief, active trauma, fear, etc is not.

In fact, broadcasting scenes of people in pain may give a vicarious “high” to sadistic types who get a thrill from seeing people suffer and might even fuel their decision to carry out a shooting themselves, especially when announcers say thing like “this is even bigger than Columbine or Virginia Tech.”

Media: Please refrain from making conjectures about how “you must feel,” or pointedly asking “are you angry because the school or the police did or said ___”

This sort of thing lays the fuel for future controversy and disruption in the community.

Yes, please be empathetic, but never assume you know how someone “must” feel. My guess is that unless they also had a 1st grader exposed to a rampage shooting, they have no idea of how the person is feeling. In fact, the parents, family members, and other victims don’t even know how they feel at the moment.

Trauma interrupts connections between the thought and feeling parts of the brain and the language centers. At this time, and possibly for quite a while, it is impossible for survivors and families to verbalize their feelings related to what has been experienced.

I would tell the media that it’s not about scooping a story (this will be a significant event for a long, long time). The real mandate for media and everyone else for that matter is to, “first, do no harm.” Responsible reporting by the press has the potential to provide a great service, but contrarily irresponsible reporting can further victimize and exploit those who are in pain.

For the media: want to know what it feels like? Ask people who have already gone through a similar event and are now able to verbalize their response.


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Carolyn L. Mears is the author of the award-winning study Experiences of Columbine Parents: Finding a Way to Tomorrow and Interviewing for Education and Social Science Research: The Gateway Approach, holds a research position, serves on the Graduate School of Social Work Trauma Certificate Board, and is dissertation advisor and adjunct faculty at the Morgridge College of Education, University of Denver.

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