On May 23, a young man killed 6 people and wounded 13 others near the campus of the University of California, Santa Barbara, before turning a gun on himself. But you probably knew that, because the incident was unavoidable in the news. Despite all of the national coverage, the student-government-run newspaper at UCSB, The Bottom Line, had a unique perspective on the crime and could have provided invaluable coverage. Yet they decided not to cover the story:
After extensive discussions among our Editorial Staff, advisor and alumni, we have decided to not immediately publish an article on the recent tragedy in our community of Isla Vista to minimize the emotional harm for our reporters, photographers and multimedia journalists. Before we are journalists, we are Gauchos [UCSB’s mascot] and feel we need our time to mourn, process and recover from this senseless violence.
Now there are any number of legitimate reasons to withhold information as a journalist, often involving the need to protect the innocent or minimize harm. For instance, most news agencies sensibly decided not to name a “pretty blond girl” that the killer claimed had humiliated him. The Scrapbook, for its part, prefers not to name the killer because spree killers (and their potential copycats) are known to harbor narcissistic fantasies about the fame their crimes will bring them. There are legitimate concerns that excessive coverage of the personal manifestoes of these monsters can only encourage other killers.
However, when the reaction to tragedy is to shirk one’s vocational duty altogether, it’s likely time to pursue a different vocation. Any student at UCSB’s newspaper involved in this decision—not to mention advisers and alumni—should probably spend some serious time in sackcloth and ashes before being allowed within 50 feet of a newsroom. There are six dead bodies. People want to know what happened. This is what reporters are for. Workers in lots of professions, not just journalists, manage to do their jobs even as they “mourn, process and recover.”
It may not be a coincidence that UCSB was last in the national news in March, when the student government there passed a resolution urging campus instructors to publish “trigger warnings” on syllabi, lest students be exposed to books or discussions that might cause them emotional trauma. According to the Associated Press, the University of Michigan, Bryn Mawr, Oberlin, Rutgers, Scripps, and Wellesley have all likewise taken up the issue this year. Suffice to say, the list of classic works of literature with allegedly traumatic depictions of sex, violence, etc. is indeed long (see Joe Queenan’s take elsewhere in this issue). Any student genuinely so fragile that he can’t handle, say, the depiction of race relations in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn without advance warning should probably not be attending college.
We hope all this is just a passing liberal arts fad, but we’re not sanguine about the current crop of participation-trophy millennials. For their sake (and ours), let’s hope they learn to buck up and cope with adversity.