MEDIA CIRCUS: Tech tragedy shouldn't be sensationalized

“The events that transpired Monday in Blacksburg, Va. are heartbreaking. It’s hard to imagine being one of the students who witnessed the killing firsthand, from within a classroom. What must have been running through their minds as entire rows of students were pelted with bullets? In one account, a student said the floor of the class was solid red – only he and one other student left the room alive.”

The events that transpired Monday in Blacksburg, Va. are heartbreaking.

It’s hard to imagine being one of the students who witnessed the killing firsthand, from within a classroom. What must have been running through their minds as entire rows of students were pelted with bullets? In one account, a student said the floor of the class was solid red – only he and one other student left the room alive.

No warning, no clear reason – 32 innocent. All dead.

There’s no arguing the magnitude of the tragedy.

However, it seems our obsession with the story is nearly as tragic as the events themselves.

For more than 72 hours, streaming media coverage live from Blacksburg has filled our living rooms. Many radio talk show hosts have discussed nothing else. The blogs have exploded and every classroom in America has likely discussed it.

This very newspaper is filled with Virginia Tech coverage. That’s what our readers have demanded from us.

My question is, why?

On Sunday, I didn’t know a single person who attends Virginia Tech. However, by mid-day Monday, I had been invited to join multiple Facebook support groups for them. A little later, I was notified of an emergency prayer vigil, taking place in Akron. The University of Akron even offered counseling to students who are struggling with the grieving process. Since then, I’ve seen literally hundreds of comments on Web sites, each declaring that their prayers go out to those in Virginia Tech.

I don’t mean to discredit any of these efforts. I believe prayer is a good thing. I also believe a good portion of the people sending them out are sincere.

But why is it that people feel so connected to the students at Virginia Tech? What is it that drives us to pray for strangers we will never know?

The answer is simple – the media have sensationalized this tragedy. Now we feel connected to it. Within a few minutes after news broke, media personalities had already begun criticizing Virginia Tech for not stopping the attack. Already they were pointing fingers.

The finger has remained fixed upon VT staff, even though almost all law enforcement experts agree that administrators acted just as they had been trained. No university in the country would close because of what appeared to be a violent domestic dispute.

So why place the blame? That’s easy – because every compelling story has a scapegoat. And that’s what this has become for media conglomerates – a really good story.

The death of 32 students and faculty is worth our attention and prayers. I accept that. But what about the five U.S. military killed in Iraq Monday? Were there nationwide prayer vigils for them? How about the 69 Iraqis that were killed the same day? Is not all human life precious?

Monday, a 3-year-old girl was accidentally killed when a vehicle backed over her. Later in the day, a Wisconsin man violently murdered his children then committed suicide. In Seattle, a flagpole fell with a gust of wind and killed a 5-year-old. Are none of them worth our prayers?

Since the start of the war in Iraq, the BBC reports that between 300,000 and 600,000 Iraqis have died – upward of 150,000 of them civilians. Even now, as the fighting slows, Iraq experiences at least two Virginia Techs each day. The same is the case in Darfur and Sudan, where genocide has become a way of life. In Africa alone, 3,000 women and children die of malaria daily.

Yet, we don’t mourn over these strangers’ tragic deaths.

This is not meant to overshadow Monday’s heartbreak. Rather, it’s a demonstration of the media’s power over us. It’s amazing that news stories have the power to make one human life seem more valuable – more important than the rest.

Tonight, when you sit down to pray, pray for every parent who has had to bear the loss of a child.

Then pray we never forget the value of all human life.