Michael Castengera, who runs WNEG, the University of Georgia’s commercial TV station in Athens, Ga., found himself in the middle of the media storm that erupted in the wake of the deadly shootings in the college town last month. With new perspective on the how media cover such events, Castengera offers some advice on how they can do it better.
Earlier this month, police found the body of a University of Georgia business professor who shot and killed his wife and two others at a fundraising event for a community theater group in Athens, Ga. He apparently tried to hide himself in a makeshift grave before killing himself. Suicide, they say, is often an attempt to escape the pain. But the people who were at the event will never escape the pain. I know. My daughter, a member of the theater group, was at the event and saw her friends being killed.
Alerted by a text message from my daughter, I arrived at the scene shortly after the shooting. And as the head of UGA’s newly acquired commercial TV station, WNEG, I was torn by my two roles — one as a father whose daughter was involved in a tragic incident and one as a journalist obliged to help my station — and to some extent other media — cover the story.
I tried to balance the two. I’m not sure I succeeded. I am sure, however, that every journalist should be put through an exercise in which he or she is the subject of a news report.
In all the surveys of the public perception of the news media, the finding that disturbs me most is that media “don’t care about people.” My experience suggests that there is good reason for the perception.
The shootings occurred at around noon on April 26 at an off-campus reunion of the Town and Gown Players, a local theater group in Athens. George Zinkhan, the business school professor, left the gathering and returned with two handguns. He fired several shots, killing three people, including his wife, Marie Bruce.
A 13-day manhunt for Zinkhan ended with the discovery of his shallow grave on May 9.
After I received by daughter’s text (“three people have been killed at the theater. I am okay”), I contacted my station to get a crew to the scene. Because of relationships we have with Atlanta stations, I also contacted them.
At the scene, I tried to comfort my daughter. And at the same time, I tried to provide my station with information and to accommodate the demands of the other media. And just for good measure, I had to fend off university officials who were on my case for disclosing too much information.
I ended up being interviewed by numerous news organizations — half television and half print.
Let me offer some pragmatic lessons.
- To the station that has the message on its main phone line to hang up if you have a news tip and dial another number, that’s dumb.
- To the stations that have a lengthy form you have to submit if you want to offer a news tip, that’s dumb.
- To all of the producers who try to vet the subject interview (in this case, me), lower the questioning level. Despite the extensive vetting, the number of stupid questions was amazing. Rely on your anchors to be semi-intelligent.
- To the anchors, don’t try to do a formal interview. Try to have a conversation with another human being.
- To the print reporters, get your thoughts at least semi-organized before you call someone. The number of ums and ahs of some of them was amazing.
Frankly, I can’t understand why anybody would agree to an interview — in print because they were confused, on television because you’re grilled and passed from one person to another and put on hold.
I walked away with the clear understanding that all the talk about interacting with the viewer/reader is just that — talk. I would suggest we all need to figure this out and figure it out fast.
There is an old, not-so-funny line that, in the television news business, if you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made. I have to say that I seemed to run across a number of people who were faking sincerity, both on the television and print side. For most, I would like to believe it was an attempt to be sincere, but there were some who were obviously using well-rehearsed lines.
I appreciated more the candor of the one booker who was frank and honest and didn’t put on false expressions of sympathy. He had a job to do, and he tried to do it simply and sensitively. I’m afraid sensitivity is not a skill we either teach or learn in the news business.
Two final notes:
To all those friends who sent expressions of sympathy — thank you. My daughter is coping remarkably well. She is, after all, for better and for worse, a newsman’s daughter.
To those of you who cover such stories in the future, I want you to think of the two small children, 10 and 8, of the professor and his wife. I want you to think of the 8-year-old daughter of one of the other victims, who saw her father killed before her very eyes. And I want you to think of the remarkable courage of the wife of the other victim who told the stunned group that had just saw her husband killed that they should know he died with friends at his side on a beautiful day in Athens.
In short, I want you to think of the victims who are survivors, the survivors who are victims. And be human.
In addition to running WNEG as project director, Michael Castengera is an instructor at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia and president of Media Strategies and Tactics Inc., a consulting firm that works with all media but primarily broadcasting. He also writes a blog on media research and issues, Media Consultant.