The only three-hour afternoon lecture that has ever held my attention was in this semester’s course on ethics in journalism, taught by Mark Bowden. The globe-trotting author told us colorful stories about the writing of his book Black Hawk Down, investigating the killing of the Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, and bringing to light American interrogation practices during the war on terror.
We wrestled with the ethical issues surrounding graphic images, like the ISIS beheading videos, and debated the appropriate uses of unnamed sources. For weeks I gave no thought to the violence that was the subject of so many of our class discussions. Until the day a student began her presentation with the boastful statement, “I had the privilege of being in Connecticut when the Sandy Hook school shooting happened.”
My hands began to sweat and tingle. I wanted to scream and interrupt the presentation. I wanted to call this girl out on her insensitivity and idiotic word choice. I wanted her and everyone else in the class to know just how twisted and horrible their journalistic mentality was. Even more, I wanted to cry, because once again the worst day of my life had become a lesson plan.
The word she used was burned into my mind: She thought it was a privilege.
On the night of December 13, 2012, I took the train home after finishing final exams. (I was a sophomore at the University of Delaware.) The next morning I woke up to the sounds of a normal day. I listened to the routine of my parents sending my brother and sister to school without any fear. That would be the last time.
Heading out to visit a friend in Massachusetts, I pulled into the local gas station and attempted to figure out how to work the borrowed car’s GPS. But before I could enter my destination, the sirens started. Cop after cop after cop flew past me. Then ambulances. Then more cops. But they weren’t in the familiar cars with “Newtown” written in blue and yellow. Bethel. Danbury. Brookfield. Fairfield. Stamford.
The attendant came over to my car and told me not to drive toward the Sandy Hook section of town. A volunteer firefighter, he had heard over his radio that shots had been fired in one of the schools.
“At the high school? At the high school? At the high school?” I have no idea how many times I repeated that question.
My college class was discussing the ethics of covering breaking news, while I was revisiting the “privilege” of thinking that it was my little brother’s school that was being attacked.
For as many times as I asked “At the high school?,” the gas-station attendant responded: “No. The elementary school.” But I didn’t believe him. People shoot up high schools; they seek revenge against their bullies. They don’t go after little kids.
Everyone on the road was driving as fast as, if not faster than, the cops. My mom and I pulled into her driveway at the same time. Abandoning my car, I got into hers before she stopped moving.
She didn’t believe it was the elementary school, either. We had to get to the high school. We had to find my brother.
On our way, we passed by the intermediate school where my 10-year-old sister and her classmates, we learned later, would sit in lockdown for more than three hours.
We got to the high school and saw no police, no ambulances, just the school security guard stationed at the end of the driveway.
The gas-station attendant was right. It was the elementary school.
Now, around me, my classmates debated sensationalism. I sat tongue-tied and nauseated, remembering our town being overrun with reporters.
The day after the shooting, The New York Times printed the name of each victim on the front page. When my little sister awoke, I listened as my parents explained to her that something terrible had happened, and then showed her the cover of the Times, asking if she recognized any of the names.
She did. Three of her classmates had siblings who were killed. One of the teachers had been a long-term substitute for her fourth-grade class just a year before.
What a privilege.
To my classmates, tragedy was an abstract concept, something to be debated and theorized. To me, it is the balloons hung around town marking the birthdays of the slain children. Purple for Dylan. Red for Jack. Pink for Caroline. A never-ending reminder that an entire class would remain 6 years old forever.
After the shooting, I returned to Delaware for the 2013 spring semester with heightened anxiety. When I walked into my classrooms, I immediately planned my escape route. I was jumpy—the slam of a door down the hall sent fear through my body.
But nothing was as upsetting as receiving my “Introduction to Journalism” course schedule and finding that we would be reading and discussing the NPR article “What It Feels Like to Be Photographed in a Moment of Grief.” After weeks of photographing and hassling my friends and neighbors, reporters had decided to ask them how that felt in the context of a human-interest story. I dreaded the day this article would be discussed.
As my classmates analyzed the ethics of photographing grieving people, I remembered the cameramen and photographers staked out along the school-bus routes to capture the perfect melancholy shot of a small child returning to school. I spent the class in agonizing worry that I wouldn’t be able to handle the discussion—that I’d have to leave. When I did speak up, my comments were written off as emotional and irrelevant to a theoretical discussion about how to cover violent events. Saying I wouldn’t run a picture of grieving children at a church service was understood by classmates as saying I was not a serious journalist.
Being affected by tragedy will make you paranoid and angry. It will engulf you in anxiety and distract you from the class going on around you. My classmates and professor seemed to me cold and unsympathetic, glossing over the human response to terrible events that journalists must cover. I felt that it was their attitude that was irrelevant.
Thousands of students have experienced traumatic, violent events, only to have them dissected by professors and classmates. Discussion of these topics is necessary for change, but we must approach them with care and understanding. We are not privy to everyone’s past, nor should we be. But as classmates and educators, we can become more compassionate.
Contrary to what she thought, the young woman who gave a presentation on the ethics of breaking news was not privileged because she was in Connecticut when the Newtown shooting happened. She was just fortunate that she was not directly affected.
Nor was I privileged to have been there when the shooting happened. My privilege was that on the afternoon of December 14, my brother and sister came home.
Author Bio: Emily Floros will earn a bachelor of arts in public policy from the University of Delaware in 2015.