In the hours after last week's shooting at Northern Illinois University, Michael Van Der Harst wasn't watching the television coverage of his campus. He was helping feed it.
As an editor at the Northern Star, the student newspaper, and a reporter for the campus station, Northern Television Center, Van Der Harst split his time speaking to sources and fielding phone calls until 2 a.m. "When I hung up the phone it would start ringing instantaneously," the Northern Illinois junior said the morning after Steve Kazmierczak, a former NIU graduate student, killed five students plus himself in a lecture hall rampage. (For an update on developments at Northern Illinois, see the bottom of this article.)
Most of the incoming calls, Van Der Harst said, were from other media organizations. CBS News was looking for video of the snowy campus. Fox News sought footage of reporters working from the newsroom. Local affiliates searched for early reports.
By late Thursday, as Northern Illinois held the first of several press conferences, television stations and newspapers had many of their own reporters on the ground in DeKalb, Ill. Some members of the press corps stayed on the university's campus over the weekend, just as they had 10 months earlier to report on the shooting spree at Virginia Tech University.
The Northern Illinois attack was immediately the lead story on national Web sites and broadcasts, and it was on front pages across the country Friday morning. Still, it was hard not to notice some differences in coverage. By 11 p.m. eastern time Thursday, most television stations had gone back to regular programming. In the days after the shooting, morning show anchors weren't doing live shots from the quad. Newspapers in some areas carried just one or two stories -- markedly different from the explosion of reporting from Blacksburg, Va.
Yet it was also hard not to notice how much more coverage the Northern Illinois case received than did an attack that took place less than a week earlier at Louisiana Technical College's Baton Rouge campus, in which a student killed two others in front of a class of about 20 students. The national media gave that story some initial coverage but largely relegated it to inside pages in the days to follow. ( Inside Higher Ed wrote a short item based on media accounts the morning after the Louisiana shooting, and didn't write a subsequent story. The Northern Illinois attack was the lead story on our site Friday and spawned two articles today.)
All this raises the question that's been asked for years in college journalism courses: What plays into coverage of violence, both on campus and elsewhere? The answer, most experts agree, is a confluence of factors.
The obvious starting point -- and one that media analysts say weighs heavily on the minds of editors in all tragedies, not just school shootings -- tends to be the number of victims. Look at the math in the three recent college cases: Virginia Tech (33 dead, dozens injured). Northern Illinois (6 dead, 16 others injured). Louisiana Technical College (3 dead, no injuries).
It's also a matter of the news cycle. The Virginia Tech attacks took place during a period of relative calm. These latest shootings occurred in the midst of the busy election season. Some also point to the fact that Virginia Tech came first and with the descriptor "worst shooting rampage in modern United States history." Since then, school and store shootings have become somewhat regular occurrences.
“This has now become, sad to say, a genre of news story -- the crazed gunman in the school or work place or mall," said Roy P. Clark, vice president and senior scholar at the Poynter Institute.
Mary Ann Weston, an associate professor emerita of journalism at Northwestern University, who has written widely on diversity and the news, said she suspects location also plays a role in the magnitude of media coverage. DeKalb is within miles of the Chicago, and Blacksburg -- although to a lesser extent -- is an easy trip for reporters based in Washington. Baton Rouge, while hardly a small town, doesn't have that same proximity to a major market. Clark pointed out that Columbine High School isn't in a media hub, either, and received plenty of attention nearly a decade ago.
Observers also note inherent differences in the college shooting cases. Much of the media scrutiny in the days after Virginia Tech centered around the university's immediate response to the shootings and the decision not to lock down the campus. In both the Northern Illinois and Louisiana cases, the shooter died moments after the first and only attack. Both campuses also had the benefit of looking at their notification policies following Virginia Tech; Northern Illinois had messages up on its Web site within 20 minutes of the incident.
Matthew Seeger, chair of the department of communication at Wayne State University, who has written extensively on school shootings, said that part of the reason why the media swarm might have been less intense at Northern Illinois was due to university officials' actions.
"They were successful in driving the story and getting information out," said Seeger, who is researching what students want to know in the hours and days following a campus attack. "There wasn't a news vacuum the media sought to fill as much. There was no need to swamp the campus." (Seeger, who attended Northern Illinois, noted that his comments come not as a graduate but as an outside observer.)
Then there's the issue of race. The three Louisiana students were black; the shooter at Northern Illinois was white and from the Chicago suburbs, as were most of his victims. The alleged media bias in cases of violence goes something like this: Shootings happen so often in the black community that they are more newsworthy when victims are white.
Weston, the Northwestern professor, said race is always in the picture when it comes to media coverage of violence -- and sometimes unfairly. Seung Hui Cho's identity as a Korean American gunman in the Virginia Tech case was "exploited" at times, Weston argued.
"The race of the shooter can sometimes drive the story," said Federico Subervi, a professor of journalism and mass communication at Texas State University at San Marcos, who recently served on a panel at St. John's University on racial misrepresentations and gaps in media content. At its worst, he said, responses to press coverage can amount to "what's wrong with these immigrants or these foreigners?"
But some say they don't see race as a factor. Kizzy A. Payton, a spokeswoman for the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, says it's more about the recent number of prominent shootings. Plus, Payton added, "[the case] was very well covered in Louisiana" and among the national media, she argues.
"We had such an isolated event," Payton said. 'It was in one room. After the shooting, it was finished and done with."
Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at the University of Washington, agrees with Payton in that the Virginia Tech, Northern Illinois and Columbine attacks were all "really theatrical in their nature -- there was a lot of drama there (shootings from stages, videos sent from the gunman)," whereas "it's not clear that was the case in Louisiana."
Media Coverage of Missing Persons
The race factor, many observers say, is much clearer in cases in which young women have gone missing. When Latasha Norman, a black student at Jackson State University, went missing in November (she was later found dead and her ex-boyfriend has been charged with killing her), many commentators pointed out that there was not the same level of attention paid to the case as there is typically when a white woman is at the center.
“It's a weird and sort of vicious cycle of the missing person stories that we seem to hold the lives of pretty young women above all others," said Clark, the Poynter official. (He also said race can play a factor.)
Malcolm McMillin, police chief of the Jackson Police Department, was quoted as saying that Norman's disappearance should have been met with "the same kind of concern" as that of other cases. "As far as the interest by the national media in the story, I think race probably had an impact," said McMillin, who is white. "It's a small college in the South. It's the daughter of simple people who maybe are not important outside of their circle, and maybe we don't attach the same importance to them that we do for other people."
Clark said in cases of campus violence, the level and type of coverage is as much fueled by class and gender as it is by race.
Added Shapiro: “The technical college is not so much a middle-class institution. One of the reasons why campus shootings often attract the attention of media is that middle class parents imagine their kids on campus. Let's be realistic: This is every parent's nightmare."
And what often galvanizes people after such tragedies, many note, is the complaint that the media are being too intrusive in their coverage. Weston said this complaint typically hasn't lessened the amount of coverage.
Shapiro said such criticism typically is leveled at the national news media, who are seen as parachuting in with their news trucks and leaving when the barrage of press conferences end. “As with Virginia Tech, you saw a lot of excellent reporting on the first day (of the Northern Illinois case), and after the second day as new information is scarce, the clichés of closure, or familiar images take over," he said. "I'd like to think the media learned something from Virginia Tech about how not to obsessively pursue interviews while people are still trying to get oriented."
Update: Northern Illinois announced on Saturday that it would open on February 25, after giving students, employees and others affiliated with the university a chance to grieve and recover from last Thursday's shootings.
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