Pack journalism: Seen from two sides, darkly

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It's called a "teachable moment," when something in real life provides a connection to lessons in the classroom. On Oct. 21, I got a horrific "teachable moment," when one of my journalism students at Emerson College in Boston, Victoria Snelgrove, became headline fodder. She was killed that day - a victim of police violence during Red Sox playoff victory crowd control. The tragedy of her death was exacerbated by the news media she once sought to be a part of.

The media coverage of Torie's death - after she was hit by a projectile containing pepper spray fired by a police compressed-air rifle - was a shocking revelation for her fellow journalism students.

And as her adviser and their teacher, I was left trying to explain the inexplicable: graphic sensationalism, exploitative sentimentality, and callous intrusiveness. The students wanted to know if this was the norm or an aberration. I knew it was a little of both.

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Having once been a reporter in the uncomfortable position of trying to get the "people" story, and having been a newspaper editor and CNN producer looking for someone to deliver that story to me, I knew what the news media wanted. They needed the short, powerfully emotional description. So I wanted to help my brothers and sisters in the media. I know how much I hated having to intrude on grief-stricken friends and family. And I know reporters were trying to do a story to inform the public about the person we all lost.

In fact, I kicked into journalist mode on first learning of Torie's death. I was working with students in the newsroom of Emerson's student radio station, WERS, when a local TV station reported her death. I put on my producer/editor hat, barking orders at my students as they were putting together a newscast to call the cops and the hospital to get confirmation. The journalist was battling the person in me who was staggered at just hearing that one of my students had died by a "less than lethal" weapon.

In the two minutes it took to walk from the radio station to my classroom/office building, a TV crew arrived at the doorstep to interview a student. Within an hour, reporters and photographers, many of them Emerson student interns or stringers for local news organizations, were all over the journalism department floor seeking soundbites, quotes, and images.

I was torn between the journalist, the teacher, and the person. The journalist wanted to give the media access; the teacher wanted to give students some space, and the person wanted to just stop and think for a minute. I wanted to help the news media. So did my students. We didn't want to throw the news media out, and we couldn't exactly throw out our own students working the story. How do you balance the public's need to know with the person's need to grieve and reflect?

Many, many reporters over two days of phone calls prefaced their voice message and call with, "I'm sorry for your loss." Yet it was pretty easy for me and for several students to discern those who were truly sorry - and there were some - and those on deadline needing something fast. I was also taken aback by the volume of calls and their incessant hunger. Each reporter, taken separately, was one thing; dealing with a dozen or more news organizations clamoring all at once - radio, television, and newspaper, national and local - gave me a whole new perspective on "pack journalism."

The Boston Herald's publication of lurid photos of Torie sprawled bleeding on the pavement again pitted the journalist in me against the human being. My first reaction to those photos was to grab up every paper I could find and destroy them. That's not necessarily what a First Amendment advocate should be thinking, but definitely something that a regular person would feel. And while the Herald crossed the line of sensibility, some television stations "had their toes on it," as one colleague put it, with some of the footage they used.

Despite our efforts to accommodate the news media, the saying, "no good deed goes unpunished" came into play as the networks' morning shows began calling and jostling for "the get." As one student noted, "I don't want to get my 15 minutes of fame" at the expense of Torie and her family. The final straw came when one of my students got a cellphone call from "Inside Edition" during the funeral.

I know journalists struggle between the hard-nosed demands of the business and their humanity. My hope is that humanity wins out more often.

Janet Kolodzy, a 20-year veteran of newspaper and TV journalism, is an assistant professor of journalism at Emerson College in Boston.

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