Journalism and Tragedy: Telling the Stories in a Way That Matters

This afternoon I was on Twitter when I heard about the attacks in Boston.

As the news reports first trickled in and then flooded the medium, of course my first thoughts were for the victims of the heinous tragedy.

Like many Americans my age, I can still recall what it felt like as child to witness the 9/11 attacks play out again and again on TVs everywhere I went. To know that my parents were in another country and to think that there was nothing I could do, no matter how much I wanted, to hold their hands.

But my most vivid memory of 9/11 wasn’t on that dreadful Tuesday morning. It was the day after.

Staying with my grandparents in a hotel that week, I clearly remember gathering as many newspapers available the next day — which arguably inspired my love for journalism — and pouring over every shred of news I could find about the attacks, just so that I could make sense of the attacks.

That next morning, my nine-year-old self knew something had fundamentally changed and rocked America to its knees. Seeing such devastation and horror truly scared me.

I felt something like that again today as I sat in the newsroom of my college paper putting together tomorrow’s paper.

As I scanned the headlines from newspapers and TV outlets both abroad and domestic, I couldn’t help but put myself in the shoes of the runners in the marathon, the first responders that heroically raced into action and the journalists that ran into the still-smoldering ruins of the blasts.

And, as a journalist, I wondered how I would have covered the events were I there. Armed with nothing but a camera and a notepad, how would I have responded to such a tragedy? How could I have told the stories that mattered? But, perhaps most important, how could I have documented this terrible event in a way that the kid in me would understand?

Everywhere I’ve worked professionally, I’ve always been told to write as though I were explaining things to grade schooler, and there’s a lot of sense in that. You want to be able to explain things in a way that is translatable across all age levels and levels of schooling. People of all backgrounds have a right to know what’s going on, after all.

But making sure the information you’re putting out is first of all correct is of paramount importance, and the way you steep things and put things in context is very important in that sense.

Looking at the news media’s coverage of the attacks, with a few exceptions, including some unconfirmed reports of a third bomb, I’m proud to say this a field I want to work in professionally when I graduate.

Today I saw compassion, empathy and an unmatched seriousness compared to recent tragedies. Within minutes, folks at the Globe, the NYT and all the major networks were on the scene doing some, quite honestly, amazing reporting.

Though the circumstances are terrible, that’s honestly what I aspire to everyday.

Even as an adult, I may not understand what drives people to the point of wanting to cause such pain and tragedy, but I know now that, armed with accurate information, stories of hope and heroism can really help people can come to grips with heinous acts of affliction. Telling stories that people both need and want to hear truly makes a difference.

And I like to think that I’ve known that, in the bottom of my heart, since I was a frightened little kid more a decade ago.


Caption: Bill Iffrig, the 78-year-old marathon runner who will no doubt appear on newspapers across the country tomorrow, was one of several Boston Marathon runners helped by first responders.

PHOTO CREDIT: John Tlumacki/Boston Globe/Getty Images

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This is the personal page of Chris Shattuck -- an Atlanta-based media professional with a background in business reporting, nonprofits and agency PR.

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