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TV news functions as therapy in Virginia Tech tragedy

I teach a class at Buffalo State College on media writing. At the end of my 8 a.m. class Monday, the homework assignment I gave my students was to draft a speech that the dean of students would give to parents of incoming freshman about safety and welfare of the students.

I told my students that campus safety is the No. 1 issue for parents. Eerily, I was giving the assignment unaware that the massacre at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., was under way.

It is a devastating story, which once again focuses on the ability of TV news to promote healing. I say "once again," because although this is the deadliest shooting spree in American history, similar scenes have played out several times before in rural areas where you wouldn't expect it.

The word most commonly heard during Monday's coverage was "shocking." The number of casualties is shocking, but it is hard to be completely shocked anymore when unspeakable, random tragedies like this occur. We've become so used to these tragedies that NBC was the only network to drop any scheduled programming Monday, cutting two easily replaced comedy repeats for a "Dateline" special.

NBC's Brian Williams and CBS' Katie Couric were in Blacksburg for their evening newscasts. ABC's Charles Gibson stayed in his regular seat, but his network still did a terrific job and dominated the ratings locally. ABC expanded "Nightline" to an hour to cover the tragedy on a day in which surprisingly few details were available. "Nightline" reporter John Donvan's interview with several survivors in their dorm was especially powerful. Donvan explained the film crew eventually was told to leave by college officials, but he felt the students wanted and needed to talk. It is hard to argue with the thought that TV news was a form of therapy.

As the nightly newscasts noted, Virginia Tech students used the Internet to follow what was going on, determine who survived by looking at "Facebook" pages, and to deal with their emotions. But even in the Internet age, the news moved at a snail's pace, with many more questions than answers. The video -- key to TV news -- wasn't very illuminating. All the stations played the cell phone footage taken by one Tech student, which captured the sound of gunfire and illustrated the chaos but little more.

We didn't learn the shooter's name, Cho Sueng-Hui, until around 9:15 a.m. Tuesday. There were few answers on Tuesday's network morning shows. What there was more of was heartbreaking emotion.

On ABC's "Good Morning America," Diane Sawyer interviewed the twin brother and sister of one victim, Ryan Clark, a multitalented student who had lived an exemplary life. It was a gut-wrenching interview, with Clark's siblings describing their brother through tears and appearing to touch Sawyer deeply.

NBC's Matt Lauer interviewed the brother of a victim, a female dance student. The brother was less emotional than Clark's siblings, but he also put a face on one of the victims.

Tuesday morning's emotional focus on the victims and their stories contrasted sharply with how unemotional Monday's coverage was as the college president, Charles Steger, and even some students who had been shot and survived made the network rounds to discuss the day's horrific events.

In his attempt to portray calmness, Steger almost seemed emotionless, even as he read a statement in which he said he couldn't "convey my own sense of loss." However, the sadness of Police Chief Wendell Flinchum was evident as he was bombarded with legitimate questions about why the campus wasn't closed after a first shooting incident.

Naturally, the national tragedy was the top story on local news, too. Local stations addressed whether Buffalo's colleges have security plans that would prepare them for a similar tragedy. Channel 4's emotional, tear-filled interview with a Clarence father who learned his daughter, a Virginia Tech student, was alive, put a local face on what parents were feeling everywhere.

The tragedy was personalized by network reporters who attended Virginia Tech -- ABC's Pierre Thomas and NBC's Hoda Kotb. Kotb, who worked in New Orleans and personalized the Katrina tragedy, ended NBC's "Dateline" coverage with a rambling discussion of her love of Virginia Tech and said she'd never imagine that the university would go down in history for a tragedy like this.

"Today" show co-host Meredith Vieira was much more eloquent Tuesday, using fewer words than Kotb when discussing the deaths of Virginia Tech students. Noting that she has a child who is about to go to college, Vieira said: "I feel like they could all be my kids. It breaks my heart."

Undoubtedly, hearts were breaking everywhere and more will be broken as the focus shifts away from pointing fingers to the victims and the heroes.

e-mail: apergament@buffnews.com

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