This was a terrible week here in St. Louis Park, Minnesota that I will never forget. On Wednesday, two fourth grade boys at Peter Hobart Elementary School, where my daughter is a second grader, were killed on a field trip. They were at Lilydale Park, a popular local field trip destination, hunting for fossils. To everyone’s shock, there was a landslide, burying ten-year-old Mohammed Fofana and nine-year-old Haysem Sani under multiple feet of sand and gravel. Two other boys were injured, one of them seriously.
As soon as I heard what happened, I sat there at work trying not to cry as I tried to remember which of my daughter’s friends have older siblings in fourth grade. At home, I burst into tears and held my daughter as she comforted me, and then proceeded to spoil her for the evening with McDonald’s and TV and a super late bedtime and endless snuggles.
When something like this hits so close to home, it means something different than other news stories. Of course I was in horrified when a madman killed a room full of first-graders in Connecticut, and when I stared at photos of that eight-year old boy who was killed at the Boston Marathon bombings. This very week, ten children were killed in an Oklahoma tornado, many of them at their elementary school. When the news brings us word that children have died, we pause in horror, and those of us who are parents know that somewhere, there’s a parent who’s experiencing the worst possible thing imaginable. But our lives go on, because awful as it is, we couldn’t function if we let every story in the news affect us as much as it could.
When two children from your child’s school die on a field trip, suddenly it’s not just another news story anymore. Suddenly your child’s school is being flashed across the screen as the region’s top news story for three days. Suddenly, the worst possible thing imaginable is not so hard to imagine. In my very community, two families sent their little boys to school, and they never came home.
I don’t watch the local news very often, or even read the local paper as much as I should, but of course we were glued to the local news the first few nights. At first I felt grateful for the news for providing us with information, what little there was. But over the course of the next few days, I quickly stopped thinking of the local media as a friend of our community.
The scene in front of my daughter’s school: media vans everywhere, taking pictures, and aggressively trying to speak with anyone child or parent or teacher they could find. When the school bus returned to the school with the uninjured children, the staff had to be on hand to shield the kids from the mobs of reporters trying to sneak photos.
The worst of it was the next day, when the principal gave a press conference in front of the school. Some of the reporters were there to play the blame game — and namely, point the finger at the principal for sending the kids on a field trip to the bluffs at Lilydale Park after there’d been a lot of rain this week. After answering some angry questions, the frazzled principal ended the press conference abruptly and walked away. One reporter yelled at her as she left, “Seriously? This is a press conference!” On Channel 9 News, there was no pretense of “fair and balanced” that evening when they reporters expressed their disgust at Principal Nielsen for resisting their attempts to sensationalize this tragedy.
Sorry, Fox 9 news. The people in my community do not blame the principal for a landslide at a park where children have gone on field trips for decades. Rather, the people in this community know how much pain this woman and her staff must feel. It’s just like the news reports of the Oklahoma tornado this week, where reporters have been asking whether or not the principal and teachers were at fault at a school where children were killed.
When it comes to an F5 tornado, or a landslide, the scary truth is that there’s no one to blame. Sometimes life just sucks. But when you’re a corporate media outlet trying to hook as many viewers as possible, why not try to sensationalize a tragedy as much a possible? Random tragedy isn’t nearly as newsworthy as a scapegoat.
I also had a weird encounter with the media of my own, when I got a call from someone at the Star Tribune. He’d seen a post I’d made on Facebook in a public St. Louis Park school room. I considered ignoring his message, but called him back only because I have respect for the Star Tribune. (I wouldn’t have called back Fox 9.)
The conversation we had was puzzling. The reporter been assigned to write a story on parents’ reaction to the event, and he told me that he was “going at it blind” and didn’t know how to start. Feeling oddly like a teacher helping a student with a difficult assignment, I suggested that he call the head of the parent teacher association. He informed me that he already had and that she had screamed at him for 45 minutes (or so he said) because someone else had misquoted her in the paper. He asked me for other parent’s phone numbers, which of course I did not give him.
I kind of felt sorry for the reporter — but only a little bit. I knew where the frustration was coming from: he desperately wanted to talk to frantic parents and children who had a direct connection to the event, and no one was willing to talk to him. But imagine that. If your child witnessed a terrifying fatal accident on a field trip, would you want reporters talking to her that evening? Of course not. But in our corporate, ratings-driven media system, there’s no healthy balance between “what people want to see” and the privacy of individuals and a community.
I can only hope that this is as close as my family and I will ever get to a tragedy that dominates media coverage. The next time there’s a horrible story about a child in the media, I’ll have a greater frame of reference for understanding the magnitude of what happened. And sadly, I’ll have a greater frame of reference for understanding the irresponsibility of the news media.