By Christopher Gorman
Silha Forum examines media coverage of tragedies
Linda Walker, the mother of the late Dru Sjodin, a University of North Dakota college student murdered in 2003, joined members of the media and the executive director of the Jacob Wetterling Foundation at the Silha Center Spring Forum to discuss the topic, “When Tragedy Strikes, What Is the Media’s Role?"
The forum, co-sponsored by the Minnesota Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) and the national SPJ, was held April 24, 2007, at the University of Minnesota’s McNamara Alumni Center. It was scheduled to coincide with Ethics Week 2007, a week-long event sponsored by the SPJ to raise awareness of the media’s responsibility to minimize harm while reporting the news.
Walker and her family were thrust into the national spotlight when media organizations from around the country reported on the 2003 abduction and murder of Sjodin by convicted sex offender Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. Since her daughter’s death, Walker has worked with other parents of missing, abducted or murdered children to pass federal laws directed at sex offenders, leading to the creation of the Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Public Registry Web site, a searchable national online directory of convicted sex offenders.
Walker spoke about her experiences as the mother of an abducted child and the role the media played throughout the investigation into her daughter’s abduction and the prosecution of Sjodin’s killer.
“When the media came into our lives, we were like most Americans," Walker said. What followed was a “surrealistic experience," a time when Walker felt the oppressive glare of the camera. “We finally realized that we had the ability to take our time and form the message we were trying to get across," she said, adding later that “victims are in such a numb state" after a tragedy occurs that it is hard for them to respond to the overwhelming attention from the press. Too often, however, families, communities and the media fail to focus on the victims, Walker said.
She was joined by panelists Amy Forliti of the Associated Press, Molly Miron of The Bemidji Pioneer and Sue Turner of WCCO-TV in Minneapolis. Nancy Sabin, executive director of the Jacob Wetterling Foundation, a national organization that works with the families of children who have disappeared or who have been sexually exploited, also took part.
Professor Jane Kirtley, director of the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law moderated the discussion about the media’s role in reporting on tragedy. Kirtley reflected on the unfortunate timeliness of the event in light of the shooting at Virginia Tech that killed 32 people in Blacksburg, Va., on April 16, 2007.
“Sadly," Kirtley said, events like the Virginia Tech shootings are “part of our daily lives, our daily fare and something that journalists deal with on a daily basis."
The journalists, who have all had firsthand experience in reporting on highprofile events such as the Red Lake school shooting in Red Lake, Minn., Hurricane Katrina and the 2003 nightclub fire in Rhode Island that killed more than 100 people, discussed the role and responsibilities of the media in covering tragic events.
As a reporter for The Bemidji Pioneer, Miron shared her experiences reporting on the close-knit communities of northern Minnesota. While covering the 2005 shooting at Red Lake High School and the disappearance of Tristan Anthony White and Avery Lee Stately in November 2006, Miron attended funerals and wakes alongside community members whom she had come to know personally. At times, she said, her relationships with victims, their families and sources required her to walk a fine line.
In the wake of the Red Lake High School shooting, for example, Miron made a difficult decision to publish the picture of two students consoling one another shortly after the incident. After the picture appeared, tribal chairman Buck Jordain contacted the journalist and expressed his anger at her decision to publish the photograph. “I never want to see my people in grief," Jordain told Miron. Although she depended on Jordain as a source, publishing was the “right decision," she said.
Turner characterized conflicts such as Miron’s as inevitable in covering tragedies. Journalists have an obligation to report the story as well as to protect the community, she said, and defended the media coverage that follows many tragedies. Although it may have been difficult for victims or community members, she said, the aggressive role of the press in the hours after the Virginia Tech shooting brought awareness to issues that deserve coverage. Although she challenged MSNBC’s decision to repeatedly air footage sent to the media organization by shooter Seung Hui Cho, she said that coverage facilitated a national debate about gun safety, emergency response and other important issues.
Others on the panel questioned whether the media’s role in Blacksburg, Va., helped to spur a national debate or simply sensationalized a senseless tragedy. “He got exactly what he set out to do," Sabin said, speaking of MSNBC’s decision to air Cho’s videotaped recordings. “There is a different story to tell: 32 amazing people lost their lives."
Media organizations, Sabin said, are quick to focus on the perpetrator without considering the consequences of doing so. Some tragedies, especially those that involve minorities and the poor, are ignored altogether, Sabin said.
Forliti emphasized that her primary responsibility “is to the public. But it is important to balance that with how what I report might affect the victims." She added, “Nobody likes to make the call to a parent who lost a son in a car accident." But reporters who do, she said, serve the public by reporting the story in a way that helps put these tragedies in perspective.
Journalists should always consider what the victims are going through, Sabin added. “Do the families a favor by avoiding using the word closure," she said. “They never have any."
“A good (phrase) that you could use rather than ‘closure’ would be ‘(putting) this chapter behind (them),’" Walker said.
Silha Center activities are supported by a generous endowment from the late Otto Silha and his wife, Helen.