Botched Press Conference Leaves Virginia Tech Apologizingby Courtney Thomas
April 18, 2007
An announcement by Col. W. Steven Flaherty of the Virginia State Police at a 4:30 p.m. press conference Wednesday revealed that Monday’s shooter, Cho Seung-Hui, mailed a package to NBC News in the two hours between shootings.
Flaherty offered very little information about the contents of a package. He said that police were working with NBC and did not allow reporters to ask questions, then abruptly, some said arrogantly, strode out of the interview room at the Inn at Virginia Tech.
The move angered many in the room and left Virginia Tech’s chief spokesperson, Larry Hincker, apologizing.
“I’m sorry,” Hincker said, adding that he too was upset at how the event was handled.
Flaherty’s abrupt departure left reporters stunned and complaining.
“I was upset that they didn’t take more questions,” said Beth Gorham, a reporter for the Canadian Press Wire Service. “So much of this is still up in the air and unexplained. It’s our duty, as somebody here said, to ask questions and we‘re not getting good responses.”
Frustration is focused on the situation, though, not individuals. Hincker’s apology in an interview after the press conference eased the media’s reaction.
“He’s got to do his job and we have to do ours, so I’m quite understanding of that. And it’s nothing against any of them on a personal level at all,” Gorham said.
Information released to reporters is limited because of the ongoing criminal investigation. Dorry Gundy-Rice, an editor for BBC News, deals with this often.
“I get frustrated everyday by the way authorities withhold information. Not just this, but all the time. They say it’s for criminal investigations and you have to trust that and respect that,” Gundy-Rice said.
Sean Tinnelly, a reporter for WVU News, agreed.
“As far as the information they’re not giving, maybe it’s better for their investigation that they’re not giving it,” Tinnelly said. “This is a hard time for them. I would say they’re doing whatever is best for them.”
The number of media organizations on campus seems to increase by the hour and students are growing tired of their presence.
Photos in Planet Blacksburg’s gallery illustrate the dense concentration of reporters and photographers in the area and their prominent presence on the drillfield Wednesday, where students gathered to pray and visit memorials.
Still, reporters say Virginia Tech has welcomed them.
“I have found the people here to be nothing but absolutely amazing and gracious in the face of such a devastating tragedy,” Gorham said. “I can’t believe it. I cannot believe how wonderful the students and the faculty and the staff are here. It’s unbelievable to me. I think you guys are setting an incredible example for the rest of the world.”
Reporters continue to contact students and local officials for information, many of whom are already overwhelmed with interview requests.
“People are busy,” Gundy-Rice said. “They’re overwhelmed with requests. We’re trying to respect that, but everyone here on campus has been as accommodating as they can be.
“No one’s been grumpy or mean or anything. Today, we wanted to talk to one of Cho’s roommates or friends or something and he said ‘I just can’t do it.‘ And we totally understand. Totally and completely. We’re just trying to do our jobs too with some level of respect.”
The Inn, where press conferences are held and satellite trucks fill every available space (paved or not) has served as a home-base for news media. Gundy-Rice said the amenities Virginia Tech is providing exceed her expectations.
“It’s such a heartbreaking story,” Gundy-Rice said. “It’s just so hard not to feel this grief. I have been to stories where there’s immense sadness and grief like this, but usually there’s not running water, there’s not hot coffee, there’s no muffins, no toilet paper...and it’s such a beautiful campus.”