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Moving Pictures: Ode To The Journalists That Tell Stories I Can’t

Posted December 15th, 2012 in Journalism and tagged , , by davecopeland

Note: Graphic images included in the Prezi after the “more” tag.

In one of the final meetings of my Social Media & Journalism class this semester we looked at two images. One was the photo from the cover of the New York Post earlier this month of a man who had been pushed onto subway tracks and was about to be hit by an approaching train. The other was a New York Times photo of a victim in an August shooting at the Empire State Building. The Post has largely been condemned for running the photo with a rather lurid “This man is about to die” headline on the front page while the Times was primarily applauded for showing an image that shows the impact of gun violence.

I showed the photos to my students out of context before showing them how they appeared in the paper and on each publication’s Website; the ultimate consensus was that Post’s subway was the more disturbing of the two images and, even before they were shown how the post ran the photo, the students were questioning its newsworthiness – but not for the reasons you may suspect.

“The shooting photo is no worse than anything you could CSI,” one male student said.

“It doesn’t even look real,” a woman added. “The blood…it’s too red. It looks like a video game.”

I suggested it didn’t look real because for most of us, the dead bodies and shooting victims we have seen have been on the screen: in video games, movies and television, often created and styled by people who had never seen a “real” dead body.

Ultimately, the students came to a consensus that the subway photo was more unsettling because the image was of someone who was about to die while the New York Times image was of someone who was already dead.

I wonder what the discussion would have been like if I was having it this coming Monday instead of last Monday in the wake of all the awful things that happened in Connecticut Friday. Then again, I wonder if I would have had the balls to even conduct such a class.

* * *

The images that are crowding into my head this morning, however, are not violent and in another context they are the exact opposite of sad and tragic.

What I can’t stop thinking about is the unopened Christmas gifts.

The pure delirium that being 5 or 6 or 7 can be at this time of year; I remember spending hours under our Christmas tree looking at presents with my name on them and wondering what’s inside, and I’m wondering what is happening in 20 Connecticut homes where the kid who may have taken one last gander at presents under the tree Friday morning is not there to do the same thing today.

I’m pretty sure an image of those presents would bust me up more than a photo of any of the victims right now.

* * *

I had a first this morning. After 30 or so years of reading newspapers daily, I cried while reading a newspaper.

The cynical types would say the sidebar in this morning’s Boston Globe by Martine Powers, Jaclyn Reiss and Matt Rocheleau is the kind of thing that newspapers do to exploit a tragedy, but for me it’s the type of journalism that shows journalism at its best. But it’s the type of journalism that is thoroughly reported and narratively written that puts us, as readers, in Connecticut. That forces us to imagine and – as much as we can – share in the pain of that shattered town.

Dozens of parents, terrified and confused, ran to the firehouse, searching for their children and trying to understand what had happened at their beloved school, Sandy Hook Elementary.

Joe Wasik, whose daughter attends Sandy Hook, said his wife received an emergency alert about 10 a.m. Wasik left work and sped to the school, then to the firehouse.

“I just wanted to be with my daughter,’’ he said.

“There were so many people. Everyone was looking for their kids,’’ Wasik said. “It was pandemonium.’’

In the firehouse, Wasik said, officials grouped children by age. A cluster of parents stood nearby.

Wasik craned his neck, looking for any sign of his daughter, Alexis, a third-grader. And, then, he saw her. She burst into tears when she saw her father.

Wasik said his daughter told him her teacher had secreted her into a closet in the classroom.

As she was being escorted out of the school, Alexis saw someone lying on the ground.

I started to plot my escape from daily, print journalism on 9/11/01, when it seemed like too many of my colleagues were enjoying the adrenaline rush which comes with covering an unprecedented news event. At the time, my brother-in-law was on a plane and the future seemed too uncertain and raw to jump into the coverage fray and start picking fights about who would go to New York and Washington and Shanksville to lead the coverage.

The people who fought the hardest that day are some of the shittiest people I ever met but also went on to become some of the most successful journalists I ever met. Before that day I had the same, sick sense of humor that most journalists have – it’s akin to the same sense of humor that EMTs and emergency room docs use to manage the grim reality of their work. I lost it, and continued to lose it over the next several years, all the way up to today when I finally allowed myself to feel human about a far-away tragedy that hit people I will never meet.

I may despise those journalists as people, but I am thankful for their ability to cast aside emotion and deliver images – written or otherwise, that force me to think and reconsider, that shake my beliefs and force me to ask big, important questions like “What if?”

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