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Tale of Two Papers: Mass Murder and Student Media

May27

dailynexus1The Daily Nexus, the independent, student-run newspaper at UC Santa Barbara, posted its first story about the mass murders in Isla Vista at 10:27 p.m. Friday night, one hour after the earliest law enforcement report of  ”shots fired.”  The paper’s reporters, photographers and editors haven’t stopped working since.

The Bottom Line, their student government-financed, journalistic rival, posted its first story two days later, an op-ed that carried this stunning headline: “Why We Have Not Yet Published Anything on the Isla Vista Shooting.”

Whenever tragedy strikes, emergency responders and journalists are some of the first on scene and are, consequently, more likely to suffer from emotional trauma because of it. As stated in the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, a code we at The Bottom Line strive to uphold every day in our reporting, we are to minimize harm, whether physical or emotional. Ethical “journalists should show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage.”

After extensive discussions among our Editorial Staff, advisor and alumni, we have decided to not immediately publish an article on the recent tragedy in our community of Isla Vista to minimize the emotional harm for our reporters, photographers and multimedia journalists. Before we are journalists, we are Gauchos and feel we need our time to mourn, process and recover from this senseless violence.

Paging Walter Burns.

nexusTragedy and tropes: Last weekend’s murder spree by a 23-22-year old, non-university resident of Isla Vista, the tiny, unincorporated beach neighborhood adjoining UCSB, swiftly generated in the media a host of by now sadly familiar national debates and tropes about gun control, mental illness, social media, bullying, parenting, cultural values, violent video games, Hollywood, law enforcement blunders, moral decay and pathological narcissism.

In that context, the contrasting approaches of two papers run by students to sudden and senseless, up-close-and-personal horror offers a rare and stark case study of how news media may approach – or avoid — the plague of such murderous episodes.

(Full disclosure: The writer of this post was employed by UCSB as student Publications Manager from 2007-10, serving as day-to-day publisher of the Nexus, in charge of keeping a struggling enterprise economically afloat. There is no department of journalism, or even a single course, at UCSB, so a prized student newsroom staff post involves a lot of learning on the job. A few days after starting in his new business-side position, your future Calbuzzer asked fourth year student and Editor in Chief Kaitlin Pike how he also might help student journalists with his 30 years of newspaper editorial experience: “Stay the fuck out of the newsroom” is a cleaned-up version of what she answered. And so, he almost always did).

The Nexus lineage traces to the 1930s, when the paper was “The Eagle” and UCSB was Santa Barbara State College. Loosely linked historically to Associated Students, the elected student government, the paper severed its ties with AS in the early 1970s, in the wake of bitter campus divisions and fierce anti-war demonstrations, including the iconic burning of the Bank of America branch in Isla Vista. The Nexus now publishes three print editions a week, plus frequent online postings and updates, operating mostly on ad revenue, supplemented by a small “lock-in fee” that requires a majority vote of approval by the student body every two years.

tblAn adversarial relationship: These days, the toughest coverage in the Nexus is reserved for AS, specifically the ways and means by which its elected leaders choose to spend millions of dollars in student activity fees that finance everything from a large campus recreation center to small musical performances and cultural and ethnic clubs.

Following a particularly long and nasty battle with the Nexus, AS decided in 2007 to start its own paper.

Among other things, the weekly Bottom Line in its mission statement states that it, “provides a printed space for investigative journalism, culturally and socially aware commentary, and engaging reporting that addresses the diverse concerns of our readership, including UCSB and its surrounding community. ”

Presumably, it was the paper’s “culturally and socially aware” values that led to its radical decision not to cover the murders on its news site (one of its intrepid reporters tweeted some coverage on his own).

Tragedy porn: Not surprisingly, that action, more precisely inaction, drew considerable condemnation on Facebook pages frequented by journalists – local and state, student and professional, working and retired: “Total abdication of responsibility to their staff and readers,” was a typical comment.

More surprising, however, The Bottom Line also received some thoughtful expressions of support, which traveled to the question of whether news media is culpable in such tragedies with its predictable blanket coverage and tried-and-true story budgets. La Tricia Ransom, a former editor at the San Francisco Chronicle wrote:

I respect that they don’t want to contribute to the tragedy porn the media too eagerly wallow in.

I also like some beliefs that if the news stopped naming the attackers, perhaps copycats will cease to see terrorism as a way to make a name for themselves. media remember the killers’ names, but not the victims.

dailynexus2Tragic Commodities: And this, reported by the weekly Santa Barbara Independent:

In front of the memorial that has grown for Chris Michael-Martinez on Pardall Road, students have raised signs that read “Stop Filming Our Tears,” “News Crew Go Home,” “Our Tragedy Is Not Your Commodity” to protest the constant presence of TV news crews, cameras, and vans in Isla Vista.

Starting about 3:30 p.m., four protesters arrived with seven-foot signs, and the protest has doubled since then, as reporters get ready for their latest evening broadcast about the seven killed Friday night.

Initially, a number of TV crews left the site when the protesters arrived, and the remaining reporters explained they were just doing their jobs and that they wanted to show the memorial. The residents replied that the news organizations were making money from their pain and that they wanted them to leave. The broadcasters ended up making their reports standing with the protest as a backdrop.

A couple of other takeaways:

SPJ and ethics: In announcing their decision not to cover the murders as a breaking news story, the Bottom Line justified their action by citing an SPJ Code of Ethics fundamental principle to “Minimize Harm.”

Whenever tragedy strikes, emergency responders and journalists are some of the first on scene and are, consequently, more likely to suffer from emotional trauma because of it. As stated in the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, a code we at The Bottom Line strive to uphold every day in our reporting, we are to minimize harm, whether physical or emotional. Ethical “journalists should show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage.”

Longtime SPJ leader Peter Sussman, who played a major role in writing the society’s current code (now being revised), took issue with that interpretation of the document:

That certainly wasn’t one of the intended readings of that code section, and it’s commonly balanced with another core principle in the code, “Seek truth and report it.” They seem to have ignored the latter, and along with it, the obligation to shed whatever unique light the students themselves could have cast on the tragedy in their midst.

tumblr_static_tw-sign6Triggers: The murders come at a time when “trigger warnings,” a buzzword that suddenly seems wildly inappropriate, have become a high-profile issue among students at UCSB and elsewhere.

“Trigger warnings” are start-of-class disclaimers which some students have sought professors to provide about potentially uncomfortable discussion or reading content in classes, such as suicide, rape or racism, “that may trigger the onset of symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.”

It’s impossible to escape the conclusion that The Bottom Line’s decision arose from its fundamentally conflicted identity as both a purveyor of campus news and an organ for elected student body leaders and, presumably, their constituents.

Old School: From where we sit — having covered the assassinations of George Moscone and Harvey Milk, Jonestown, Loma Prieta Earthquake, mass slayings and many more tragedies — The Bottom Line simply doesn’t understand the bottom line. The paper surely has done no favors for anyone on its staff who aspires to be a working journalist by abandoning the field, along with its role as a community news source. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

The Nexus, which resumes print publication tomorrow, performed with distinction the duties of a news organization. When the deal goes down, privileges extended under freedom of the press suddenly transform into arduous, painful and exhausting responsibilities of the press.

Mega-kudos Nexites.


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There are 8 comments for this post

  1. avatar A.G. Block says:

    As I posted elsewhere, Bottom Line’s stance is akin to the NYT refusing to cover 9/11, or the Times-Picayune ducking Katrina. This is dilettante journalism and horrible disservice to the UCSB community.

  2. avatar chuckmcfadden says:

    Too precious for words. First “trigger warnings,” now this from the delicate souls that now seem to inhabit parts of my beloved Alma Mater. Let’s hope none of them make it into the real world of news reporting. As A. G. says, they would shrink from covering 9/11 for fear of making their readers sad.

  3. avatar tonyseton says:

    The ever-perspicacious Peter Sussman was gentle in his elucidation. Those who made this inane decision and embarrassing statement for the Bottom Line should resign.

  4. avatar SouthOCPRGal says:

    As a UCSB alum, I commend the Nexus staff for bravely providing students’ perspectives on the tragic events of Friday night.

  5. avatar jrbettinger says:

    Kudos to the Nexus staff. Tragedies like this tax a student newspaper staff especially hard. I recall when a custodian at the UCSB Faculty Club was killed by a bomb in the spring of 1969 — a volatile time at UCSB and elsewhere in the UC system. It happened on a Sunday and the El Gaucho newspaper published an extra on 8-1/2 by 11 flyers later that day. It never would have occurred to us to do anything different.

  6. avatar hotflash says:

    You were very gentle with the PC infested Bottom Line. They have no right to call themselves a news operation. They’re an encounter group with a newsletter. Their motto ought to be “All the News that Fits Our Sensibilities.”

  7. avatar Silent Sleuth says:

    Bottom Line’s editors are idiots and should all resign. Given their interpretation of the SPJ code, does that mean that these student journalists also can’t cover car accidents or fires? How about a cat up a tree? (What if half the staff are cat lovers and they might be traumatized?) Heck, even taking a job as a weatherman can be expose you to some awful news!
    They are not teaching these budding journos what they need to learn: the world is a complicated, unpredictable and often frightening place. And a journalist’s responsibility is to cover & report the facts.
    The Disneyfication of education is ridiculous at the college level. The very idea that UCSB is entertaining the idea of “trigger warnings” is just outrageous.
    From a psychological perspective, does Bottom Line imagine that if they don’t report it, it didn’t happen? I guarantee you these murders and the crazy murderer are ALL the students at UCSB are thinking and talking about right now. That’s because going over and over a tragedy is how we process what happened and help ourselves to grieve and hopefully start to feel safe again.

  8. avatar tegrat says:

    I think local coverage should be thorough and truthful and respectful and timely, for god’s sake, it’s the national coverage that needs to really examine its motivations for why it reports these things the way it does (case in point CNN and MH370 – jesus…). The protesters were spot on in shooing away news teams that really have to reason to be there other than monetizing their broadcast content.

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