Thirty-one… now 32 killed at Virginia Tech. Initial “breaking news” headlines emailed and forwarded to my BlackBerry from the New York Times, then the Washington Post and finally the Sacramento Bee reported the number dead at 20 or 21. I received these reports while sitting in a classroom at Sacramento State University - peeking at the screen of my personal digital assistant, surreptitiously answering its silent vibrations. Now, more than two hours later, I finally have occasion to open my laptop to read the full story and it’s worse than I imagined.
It could have gone either way. Initial reports in instances such as this are often inaccurate. When news like this breaks, details are often sketchy; new and updated information is constantly becoming available. I was hoping that the initial reports were wrong - that the death count was too high. As we now know, it went the other way. There are many questions yet to be answered, but the resounding senselessness of it all couldn’t possibly be more pronounced.
Although I haven’t yet reported on a tragedy of this magnitude, I have covered other breaking news and experienced the singleness of purpose that getting the information to print as quickly as possible represents. While in the midst of the event, whether it’s a fire, an accident or a shooting, getting the information out is the reporter’s only job. The gravity of the event, at least for me, doesn’t come into play until after I’ve had a chance to decompress - after the deadlines have been met. While reporting, I simply don’t have time to make any judgments about what it all means, only to report on what it is.
In this instance, I am a news consumer like most everyone else hearing about this calamity today. I am shocked, disgusted, dismayed… and distracted. If I were assigned to this story, all of those emotions would have to be put on hold - it’s all about getting the story out. Like nurses, firefighters, emergency medical technicians and many other professions where a level dispassionate decorum is essential, reporters must be able to disassociate themselves from their story or risk becoming part of it. There is no time to think.
The irony of where I was when I received this terrible news is not lost on me. It could happen anywhere. It did happen anywhere - this time at Virginia Tech. No one is immune to this kind of idiotic violence and there is no defense. Sure the debate regarding gun control and a hundred other acts of second-guessing will shortly ensue, but at the end of the day, we can’t shield ourselves from every nut-case in the great big world. Unfortunately, this sort of insanity will likely be repeated again somewhere, someday. And there will be reporters there to cover it. The moral? Perhaps there is none. Perhaps it’s as simple as appreciating each day like it could be your last. For at least 31 at Virginia Tech, it was.