« March 2007 | Main

April 26, 2007

How I Covered the "Veteran's Awareness" Story

The idea for this story came from a combination of two things: the assignment to cover a bill in the Minnesota Senate, and my interest in veterans' affairs.

I have several friends in the military, some still overseas, and when I saw a category for "Veterans" and "Military" in the list of bills in the MN Senate, I knew I wanted to get a stroy from there.

The bill I chose, to improve veterans' access to mental health services, seemed timely as well as interesting. Many people have loved one in the military and are concerned about both their physical safety and mental health. With more and more Iraq vets returning home, mental health issues like PTSD are gathering more salience in the news.

There were several authors to the bill, not just the chief author. I contacted all of them through email first, then called some of their offices. No one was available over the phone when I called, but surprisingly a few of the authors (the ones quoted in the story) got back to me.

I needed more information from other sources to fill out the story and give it authority, so I contacted two psychologists at the U of M. Fortunately, the one with a social psychology background got back to me very quickly. She was very helpful in adding a facet to the story I had not thought of before (that the military's problem with getting vets therapy may not be access, but stigma).

I also spoke with an Iraq vet I knew through some friends. He was more helpful than I thought he would be. I wish that I had had the time to find more veterans to comment, though.

I would have loved to find out how many veterans actually use the mental health services, how many (estimated) should be using them, etc. If I was writing this for a magazine or newspaper, I would like to have added two graphs or charts: One listing the most common mental health complaints of vets, and another showing what proportion of vets need/use mental health services. Photos of everyone who commented on the story would also have been helpful.

April 23, 2007

News Can Make Itself

The coverage of the tragedy at Virginia Tech is the most recent example of how news stories can "make themselves."

The killings in Virginia certainly were news worthy of national coverage--what I am focusing on here is how news stories can prompt other issues to become stories.

For example, in this case, after the coverage of the main facts and background of the shootings in Virginia, stories now appear around issues only related to the tragedy. The Star Tribune published a story about security at Minnesota colleges and campuses; the Daily has been publishing opinion pieces on gun control using VA Tech as an example; MSNBC.com links to an opinion piece by a soldier wondering why flags are half-staff for the students, but not for Iraq casualties.

This spreading activation in the news is expected and often appropriate. The tighter airport security after 9-11 is an example of improvements made to some system after a national news story.

It seems that it is necessary for some widely-known event to occur for certain issues to gain prominence and respect, which is understandable.

But how can the media make less "famous" news more important to people when the issue is long-term, like global warming? I cannot think of when "green" issues get lots of coverage apart from when famous people bring them up, like Al Gore's movie, or when a report or annual event like Earth Day occurs.

Can the media attract attention to more long-term news without a "prompt"?


April 20, 2007

What is Role of Media During Tragedy?

Several national news networks will be greatly decreasing or altogether eliminating images of VA Tech shooter Cho Seung-Hui from thier broadcasts, the Pioneer Press reports in an article from Associated Press reporter David Bauder.

As you may recall, Cho sent NBC News a package with videos and messages that arrived at their offices posthumously. NBC aired some of the footage, as did many other networks. The pictures were widely available on the Internet, as well.

The decision to pull the material from the air was made, apparently, in sympathy for the victims' families.

"It has value as breaking news," said ABC News spokesman Jeffrey Schneider, "but then becomes practically pornographic as it is just repeated ad nauseam."

There are ethical questions towards both putting the material out there and pulling it. The images have been described as disgusting, and are certainly disturbing to anyone familiar with the VA Tech tragedy, so should that have overridden the news organizations' instinct to show the public what was in their possession?

As far as pulling the material, is it the media's responsibility to decide what is too disturbing for its audience?

I can't help but think back to the coverage of 9/11, where several outlets repeatedly aired footage of people jumping from the twin towers to escape the fires inside. It was shocking to see, but just hearing about it would not have done justice to the enormity of the decision these people made to jump.

It is also interesting to note that NBC also gave the package to the police before they showed the images and writings in broadcast.

I have heard in several classes a form of this quote: "The media's job is not to police." If this is the case, why did NBC hand over the package from Cho before telling its audience?

At the same time, many of us have heard that "the media (especially newspapers) are a public service." If that is true, it gives a lot more implicit power to the media. If the media are supposed to serve the public by providing news and analysis, the media would also decide what is important enough to be reported on. It can, then, decide how to report it, how much should be reported, what the audience should think of it, etc.

It is certainly enlightening to see how the media responds to events such as those at VA Tech. I believe it tells a lot more about the media's values than textbooks.


April 17, 2007

Awareness of Veterans' Mental Health Spreading

Jonathan Schulze was a decorated marine and Iraq war veteran. According to Kare 11’s Web site, he sought admittance to the V.A. Medical Center in St. Cloud on January 11th because he was suicidal. Schulze was instead put on a wait list. He hung himself days later.

To improve access to counseling services for Minnesota’s veterans, five senators have authored a bill requesting money for a telephone hotline and improved counseling services in “underserved areas.?

“Senator Erickson Ropes (the main author of the bill) sponsored this bill because many of our returning veterans are not receiving sufficient mental health care,? Tim Donahue, legislative assistant to Sen. Erickson Ropes said. “Depression and post-traumatic stress disorder have been great burdens on veterans, and are often not fully treated.?

The bill also asks for the commissioner of veterans affairs and the adjutant general of the National Guard to report to the state Senate on the psychological status of soldiers returning to Minnesota after serving in Iraq.

“As a co-author of the bill, I think that it’s important we protect our veterans in every way possible,? Sen. Mike Jungbauer, a co-author of the bill, said.

Currently, a soldier looking for mental health counseling must find a clinic or veteran’s hospital and call to make an appointment by him or herself, Donahue said. The hotline would help to facilitate the process.

Emily Stark, who teaches psychology at the University of Minnesota, says that even if access to counseling resources is improved, many people who need them may not use them.

“Improving access to mental health resources is always good, but I think a bigger problem is that there’s a stigma about seeing a counselor,? Stark said. “Some people might feel that if they admit they need therapy, then they are ‘weak’ or ‘crazy,’ and this type of thinking might be even more prevalent amongst the military.?

Aaron Abel, a specialist in the Army Reserve who served in Iraq driving supply trucks agrees with Stark.

“I’ve personally never needed counseling, but I have a good friend from my platoon who just started seeing a counselor for PTSD,? Abel says, referring to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. “I’m not too worried about him, but I know a few other guys who probably should be getting therapy and aren’t.?

Stark says the bill would be more effective if it included a component to guard against the negative stigma of therapy.

As of now no committee hearings have been scheduled to further the bill.

“At this point with our committee deadlines, this bill may not go anywhere this session,? Sen. Jungbauer says. “But stranger things have happened.?

However, even if no legislation is enacted to help, other resources are appearing.

In an article appearing today in the Pioneer Press, author David Hanners describes a former Marine and Iraq veteran who teamed up with Schulze's family to establish a foundation to help soldiers get mental health help quicker.

"The family announced it had incorporated the nonprofit Jonathan Schulze 'I Can't Hear You' Foundation. The name comes from the phrase barked by Marine Corps drill sergeants to their charges," says the article.


Coverage of the Virginia Tech Massacre

The Pioneer Press and Star Tribune featured the exact same story from AP writer Matt Apuzzo. The Pioneer Press posted it online at 1:40 am, and the Star Tribune posted it most recently at 4:43 this afternoon.

The story is appropriately long, having been written well after the attacks, it is filled with not only a description of the events that unfolded the day of the shooting, but also background on the shooter, Cho Seung-Hui, a 23-year-old English senior. The story also provided quotes with reactions from students, instructers, the University president, and police officers.

The coverage of this story is mostly predictable because it is a predictable scenario: Of course the gunman was distrubed. Of course there were signs and missed opportunities for intervention.

It is interesting to compare national coverage to the local media at the university. The Collegiate Times is the Virginia Tech student newspaper. In an article posted yesterday afternoon on the paper's Web site, written by Saira Haider and Kevin Anderson, details such as the place where news conferences were held, the floor of the dorm that the shootings occured on, and a more detailed account of the attack from a student witness.

One feature of the school paper's article I thought was helpful in understanding this story was a timeline of events, including the two-hour gap between the first shooting and notification to the campus community.

I don't know exactly how the logistics works for newspapers using AP stories, but I think a good idea would be to consult more local sources for information when national news occurs. The AP reporter might not be from the area the event(s) occured in, so a credible source that is closer to the community may be very helpful in understanding the story and humanizing it.