Editor’s Desk: Consumer Media Misses the Mark With Virginia Tech

Published: April 30, 2007

Like all Americans, I was deeply saddened and shocked by thescale of the human tragedy that occurred at Virginia Tech April 16.This massacre will undoubtedly change our country’s outlookon campus safety and security.

My sadness and shock, however, turned to disappointment,frustration and, at times, disgust upon hearing about how some of myfellow journalists had covered the shootings.First, there seemed to be many who felt the immediate need to blame theuniversity and its police department for how the case was handled,despite the fact that the investigation was ongoing and the informationavailable was incomplete at best. True, the inquiries that arecurrently being conducted may uncover problems that need to berectified. Still, I was disappointed that some of my media brethrensuccumbed to the temptation to pontificate, regardless of the evidenceknown at the time.

Second, as I was interviewed by several news organizations, itbecame apparent that some were frustrated by my unwillingness to givepat answers regarding the very complex challenge of campus safety andsecurity. It appears American campuses have a serious public relationsproblem; the result being that most people have no clue what isinvolved with college and school law enforcement and facilityprotection.

Maybe I should attribute this phenomenon to our fast-pacedsociety and its thirst for quick and easy solutions. Perhapsit’s because we are so accustomed to sound bites that weleave little room for thoughtful, methodical and meaningful discussionsof this and other important topics.

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What really fueled my ire, however, was the televising of ChoSeung-hui’s video. By doing this, we gave Cho the 15 minutesof notoriety he craved. What’s worse is now others willprobably emulate him. Indeed, since the Virginia Tech shootings, therehave been many threats against campuses by deranged individualsclaiming their attacks will be even “bigger andbetter” than what happened April 16.

Most disconcerting of all was the fact that while these soundbites and videos were airing, some of the core problems facing campuslaw enforcement were not even mentioned. In particular, three issuescome to mind: 1. The disconnect that often occurs between campusadministration and law enforcement; 2. Officer recruitment andretention issues; and 3. The struggles many campus law enforcementagencies experience when trying to find the resources to support theirsafety and security initiatives. Although I don’t know ifthese struggles apply to Virginia Tech, I hear from many of you thatthese issues are your biggest challenges.

Now don’t get me wrong – there were manynews organizations that did an excellent, responsible job of coveringthe Virginia Tech tragedy and were willing to look, albeit briefly, atsome of the complexities of campus safety. It is my hope that thiscoverage will drown out the sensationalistic fervor and educate thepublic and media about the challenges associated with protecting acampus. The lesson our society will hopefully learn is that we musttake campus safety much more seriously and give it the support itdeserves. That is, of course, if those outside of campus lawenforcement can stay focused long enough for universities and collegesto achieve meaningful progress in securing their communities.

Whatever the outcome, April’s tragedy has led me todevelop an even greater respect for what Campus Safety readers doeveryday. It can be a “damned if you do, damned if youdon’t” type of job. If you overreact, some may callyou a fear monger. If you underreact, others may claim you are tryingto hide the truth or are incompetent. It’s a delicate balancethat is very difficult to achieve. I applaud you all.

Robin Hattersley Gray is executive editor of Campus Safety magazine and can be reached at robin.gray@bobit.com.

For the unabridged version of this article, please refer to the May/June 2007 issue of Campus Safety magazine. To subscribe, go to https://secure2.bobitweb.com/campussafetymagazine/subscribe/.

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