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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Tragedy and “Breaking News”

I wound up watching hours of the television coverage of the Blacksburg massacre yesterday, probably because I know a whole lot more about Virginia Tech than about the sites of similiar tragedies in the past. And two aspects of the “story” jumped out, particularly during and immediately after the university’s evening press conference.First was the firm stonewalling by university spokesmen on the salient facts of the tragedy, to the point of telling reporters they knew “facts” that they were unwilling to disclose for unspecified reasons. It was painfully obvious that no one before the cameras in Blacksburg had any training in crisis communications; they appeared uniformly defensive and, well, uncommunicative. I obviously don’t know what university officials were telling thousands of anxious parents at this point, but if it was no more than what they were putting out publicly, it probably wasn’t very helpful or comforting.Second, and closely related to the first, was the speed with which the media shifted the “story” from the massacre itself to suspicions that Virginia Tech horribly mishandled the situation after the initial shootings, quite possibly missing a chance to prevent or at least mitigate the subsequent shootings. This storyline clearly fed and fed on the school’s refusal to talk. And the media also jumped quickly on state officials, implicitly suggesting they should have instantly materialized in Blacksburg to take charge of the situation. (One of the realities of public higher education in this country is the carefully constructed absence of direct, hierarchical lines of authority between state officials and university operations, compounded in cases like this by fuzzy and often informal relationships among state, local and university law enforcement personnel). None of this much matters in the long run, or is of any significance as compared with the underlying tragedy. But the interactive dance of defensive, stonewalling public officials and aggressive, competition-obsessed reporters has become a depressingly regular feature of “breaking news.”

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