Elliot Rodger killed six people and injured 13 others on May 23, in Isla Vista, California, a community where many UC Santa Barbara students live. All six of those killed that day were students at the university. This tragedy has been reported and dissected by every major news outlet in the country, including The Daily Californian. But UCSB’s ASUC-sponsored paper, the Bottom Line, chose to refrain from immediate devoted coverage of the incident outside of their Twitter feed. In fraught and dangerous circumstances, the Bottom Line made the wrong decision and abandoned its responsibility to its campus and community.
In the original op-ed on the subject of its silence, TBL said it sought to “minimize the emotional harm” done to its own staff by covering this event. In a clarification issued three days later, members of the editorial board of TBL revised some of their original reasoning, stating instead that they had worried they might “contribute to the panic” surrounding the incident. Panic is always possible, and the news is meant to defuse it with the truth.
This abdication was described in TBL as an expression of its ethics. In reality, the ethics of journalism run counter to this kind of self-preserving rhetoric. The responsibility of the press to keep the public informed does not decrease when it hits close to home; it increases. UCSB needed TBL in the aftermath of this terrible tragedy, more than ever. The student body needed a voice, the administration needed a clearinghouse of accurate information, and national media needed boots on the ground. Only local, campus-based reporters have the knowledge of the territory and the contacts needed to cover and respond to a story like this. Instead, TBL chose to use the limited reach of its Twitter account to keep people informed and to work toward publishing its coverage Monday, a full 10 days later. In a time when the news cycle is only getting faster, this delay renders its contribution almost irrelevant. This choice could have been intended to reflect respectful abstention from harassing witnesses and probing wounds. But it reads as weakness and a lack of understanding of the function of a newspaper.
In times of terrible tragedy and dangerous conditions, many reporters have risked their life to offer close coverage. The Daily Nexus, the independent paper at UCSB, did just that, stepping directly into the fray and covering the story in the way that local news is meant to do. A lack of independence does not absolve TBL of its responsibility to be the voice of UCSB. The wording of Saturday’s update to TBL’s statement seems to hint at instability in leadership — a decision made without the editorial board present, an op-ed written by a former editor.
If the Isla Vista shooting was too raw, too close to home or too disturbing for TBL to cover, of what use is its position in the community? Breaking news journalism does not necessarily have to consist of “harassment” or “fear-mongering,” as TBL’s statement frames the issue. Those terms are the worst iteration of a newspaper’s role, comprising the paparazzi-and-sensationalist stereotypes often used to silence or frighten members of the press into avoiding conflict. There are existing resources on how to cover even the most terrifying occurrences, including mass shootings. Poynter’s instructions to reporters and journalists ensure sensitivity, while focusing on getting important facts into the news.
In April 2007, staffers and editors at Virginia Tech’s Collegiate Times used these guidelines when covering the mass shooting on their own campus, and the result was immediate campus-based coverage in the voice of the student body. The Times then followed this up with a special edition of its paper, featuring stories following the shooting and its aftermath, presented in a way that only that paper could speak. TBL has missed the opportunity to perform as admirably here, opting only for the retrospective approach.
In February 2008, reporters and editors at Northern Illinois University’s Northern Star provided constant coverage of a mass shooting on their campus — one that killed five and injured 21. At that time, Twitter was not a widely used platform and could not take the place of breaking news coverage. Northern Star was among the first outlets to report details furnished by local police about the incident, bringing desperately needed information to a campus reeling in shock and disbelief and awash in rumor. This is the most important duty of a campus newspaper: to be the reliable source of information in a hyper-local context.
The Daily Californian, the Collegiate Times, Northern Star and the Daily Nexus are all independent news organizations. As examples of the truly free press, these newspapers do not have to wait on approval or look for permission before our reporters run toward the sound of gunfire. To students of UCSB, the people of Isla Vista, and the friends and families of the victims of this tragedy, we extend our deepest sympathies and regret for their sorrow and loss. To the staff at the Bottom Line, we extend the sincere hope that they will learn from this experience and grow from it as journalists.