The word ‘tragedy’ seems almost too small to describe the incident on Tuesday night which killed six young students and injured seven more while they celebrated a 21st birthday party in Berkeley, California. Although many UCD students are spending their summer holidays far away from Belfield, it is inevitable that over the past few days their thoughts will have returned to the campus following the deaths of three of their fellow students. Whether we knew them personally or not, every member of staff and every last student of UCD has been affected in some way by the tragedy.
The Students’ Union has been run off its fledgling feet as the new officers organise support staff for students and memorial services, while thousands of signatures and messages have already been added to UCD’s online book of condolence as well as those who have signed books in the Mansion House, Cork City Hall, UCC, Galway City Hall and County Hall in Tallaght. Friends of the critically injured have been waiting to hear further updates on their conditions.
It can be difficult at a time like this to know exactly what to say to those who have been affected by such a devastating event, or how to give words of comfort that don’t sound trite and cliché. However as many have seen at this point, the media also occasionally struggles with how to appropriately portray a tragedy such as this. This is evident in the New York Times‘ recent online article by Adam Nagourney, Mitch Smith and Quentin Hardy, which displayed a horrific insensitivity to the deaths of the students and put a clear emphasis on Irish students as being in the US to party, describing the J1 programme as “a source of embarrassment for Ireland” just hours after the incident occurred.
There can be no excuse for the New York Times’ coverage of the Berkeley balcony accident, particularly when their response fails to fully explain the reasons why such coverage was published. Explanations such as “we wanted to do something to move it [the story] forward” are flimsy attempts to cover lazy journalism which glossed over the compassion and empathy which should have been due and jumped straight to inaccurate finger-pointing and victim blaming. It goes without saying that not only was the depiction of students who travel to the US on J1 visas inaccurate for the vast majority of students, but even if these particular young people in Berkeley had been taking part in the “drunken partying and the wrecking of apartments” as described in the New York Times article, the fact remains that this had nothing to do with the accident. The accident occurred due to the structural deficits of the balcony. It is difficult to understand how such an article was written and then approved for publishing by at least one senior editor without raising any questions as to the tone and content of the piece.
A particular affliction of online journalism in this world of real-time Tweets and constant online updates is the race to be the first on a new lead, a new source or a new angle. The desire to get a scoop is often foremost in any young journalist’s mind. Once the story has been broken, it’s over- and the race for the next original headline begins. It is telling that one of the reporters who worked on the story, Adam Nagourney, is quoted by Margaret Sullivan in her public editor’s journal as writing “By the time I came on the story, it had already been on our site for five hours or so and we wanted to do something to move it forward.” The focus had already shifted, five hours after having been broken on the New York Times website, from reflecting accurately what was going on to “moving it forward”- regardless of whether or not the story had changed at all. This is a particular instance of “moving it forward” that went disastrously wrong, where the desire to be the first on a new angle became more important than any concern of accuracy, let alone empathy. It is articles such as this one that give journalists a reputation of being uncaring, untrustworthy and callous hacks. I hope that the positive examples of journalism at times of tragedy will also be noted.
It’s rare to see such a collective national backlash coming as a result of one US article, and many of those commenting on it on their Facebook and Twitter feeds have been students and young people. Plenty of us have seen our timelines filled today with angry and upset comments directed towards the New York Times. It is testament to the solidarity of young people in the face of such unfair accusations, intentional or otherwise, towards their peers. It comes as a huge insult to Irish students to read that the deaths of their fellow students have been unfairly associated with a drunken Irish stereotype, and it is extremely commendable that they have spoken out against it loudly enough to garner statements from both the public editor and the New York Times spokesperson within 24 hours. It appears that no matter how often young people are underestimated and undervalued, they will continue to band together in moments of crisis, whether it’s in the form of expressing their opinions on an article or travelling home to vote in a referendum.
Three of our fellow students at UCD have died and others have been seriously injured. Three other Irish students have also been killed. It is important for journalists at home and abroad to recognise that although taking new angles on events and seeing things in a different light is an important part of the role of the journalist, it should never come at the cost of compassion and empathy for those affected.
The staff of the University Observer would like to offer their condolences to the families and friends of those who have passed away in this accident. May they rest in peace.
The UCD book of condolence may be accessed here.