When Thinking About School Shootings, Remember Journalists

It has been more than 24 hours, and it still very much feels like we’re in crisis mode around here after a 15 year-old kid in Oxford, Michigan killed four fellow high school students and injured several others in the latest of decades of schools shootings in this country.

Out of personal interest and professional commitment, I have tried to keep up with the news coverage, press briefings and other communications aspects of this tragedy and have been consistently impressed by the professionalism and high caliber work by the journalists who have reported on the story in “the field” and from studios. As usual, when the stories get big, the Detroit market gets bigger – punching above its weight class, as the analogy goes.

But despite what you read, hear and see, these journalists will bring this story home with them. Concern for those affected by this should include those who have been bringing us the news.

This made me think of Chris Velardi, a close friend from student journalism days in college, whose 20 year-run in TV news included time as an anchor and reporter in his hometown market of Connecticut, where he was working nine years ago when Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown was the site of a horrific shooting. I checked in with him today and thought I’d share some of what’s going through his mind.

He shared what it was like to anchor a Prime Time recap broadcast, just hours after the story began to unfold:

“The four hours we produced that evening served as a community space for processing what had happened and grieving. We used social media in a very different way that evening — people shared messages of support, grief, fear, etc. on our pages and created a safe place of community. As an anchor, I had to be a leader… but I also had to be a comforter, an empathetic parent (which I was — my children were in elementary school at the time), a shoulder to cry on. I have often said, I felt like I was doing the best of TV news that night.”

Of his colleagues who were on-site at the school and with families of victims:

“I could tell they were struggling, once the adrenaline of covering breaking news wore off, the reality of what had happened set in. They were seeing and sometimes speaking to families who lost a child – a 6- or 7-year old – and families who were so incredibly thankful their child was not hurt. Once the ‘who, what, where, and when’ had been covered, we had to move on to the ‘how’ and ‘why.’ Those were much more difficult to answer and discuss.”

All these years later, the emotions are still vivid for Velardi. This is what we should all think about for those whose jobs dictate that they immerse themselves in the story:

“It started to affect me while anchoring that night. There were moments I just wanted to be at home and hug my own children… and try to answer their questions, ease their fears. I think that’s why I really embraced the responsibility of anchoring that evening — I knew I was, in some ways, serving that purpose for a much wider audience. 

It affected me that week — we’ll never forget a Christmas party we attended the next evening with a bunch of other parents of similarly-aged kids. Sandy Hook had broken us – we couldn’t help but think, what if it was our town, our children’s school? 

I struggled with the guilt I experienced because I never went to Sandy Hook. I anchored from the somewhat sterile environment of the studio… it shouldn’t hit me as hard as colleagues who were there. But it did… and it stayed with me – still does. I can’t think about it or talk about it or write about it without feeling that lump in the back of my throat.

There’s nothing that can prepare a reporter to cover a story like this in their community. But there need to be resources available afterward to help journalists process it. The TV news industry has never had a great reputation when it comes to taking care of its employees from a mental health standpoint. The industry seems to be changing, like many, and paying more attention to these things. It’s important. Yes, we were offered counselors to speak with, but I don’t remember it being particularly encouraged or, frankly, easy.”