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Media Presence Annoys Mourners Gathered To Honor Victims Monday

by Tricia Sangalang
News Staff Writer
April 23, 2007

Rise early at Virginia Tech and you can discover true quiet at, say, 7 a.m. Few students or faculty can be seen, except for the occasional early bird eager to snare a hot breakfast.

That seemed to be the point of “A Moment In Time,” another remembrance event from a week of events that occurred Monday morning to mark the 7:15 a.m. incident at West Ambler Johnston April 16, which left two people dead and ignited the ensuing rampage in Norris Hall two hours later.

This Monday the idea seemed simple enough: Have students and other members of the Tech community gather on Dietrick Lawn to mark last week’s event.

This time, however, a few Virginia Tech Police officers, students and various members of campus ministry found themselves accompanied by a bevy of reporters, with their cameras and microphones in hand.

Media stationed themselves on the sidewalk in front of East Ambler Johnston, pointing their cameras toward about 20 marching members of The National Association for the Prevention of Starvation (NAPS), a non-profit volunteer relief organization started in Alabama that was on hand to mark the occasion.

Dressed in dark blue sweatshirts, these members, who represent several colleges and states, played music just before the remembrance event began.

As the NAPS members continued down the sidewalk, one cameraman walked backwards in front of them, capturing their march on camera. Other media scurried down the sidewalk in hopes of catching a good shot of the seemingly impromptu performance.

Meanwhile, students and campus ministry members walked towards the center of the lawn to honor Ryan Clark and Emily Hilscher, who were shot in West Ambler Johnston last Monday.

“I had English class with Emily,” freshman August Sarrol said. “I came to show support. Everyone seems to know about the other (victims in Norris), but these students are just as important.”

While walking to join the group, a reporter stopped a student and asked, “What do you think about all the media that are here right now?”

When he responded, “I’m part of student media,” the reporter backed away and continued to observe.

At about 7:10 a.m., two campus ministry members called for the crowd’s attention.

At that moment, the media bustled, without hesitation, towards the group, eager to catch the opening of the remembrance on camera.

In a piqued tone, one of the leaders asked the media to step away, encouraging students to come and join the circle.

“Please respect us,” the group leader said to the media. “This is for the students.”

Although some listened and stayed a few feet back, one reporter knelt down, holding a microphone towards the two leaders. She was the only person in the middle of the circle.

It seemed the number of media personnel in attendance outnumbered the number of students and community members present.

A few minutes later, the two ministry members led the group in a Buddhist chant. Many sang along, others hummed.

At 7:15, they rang a bell. Ding. Ding. Ding. One minute of silence for one victim.

As students bowed their heads, one cameraman made his way through the crowd, and stuck his camera in a mourner’s face; the reporter, with a microphone in her left hand, followed close behind.

On the other side of the circle, a cameraman stood in front of students in order to capture the moment. A Red Cross representative, perturbed by his insistency, covered the camera lens with her hand. He responded in an equally annoyed tone: “Don’t touch my camera.”

“I guess it’s their job to put this on air,” Sarrol said. “It’s not good. One guy was pushing over students.”

One minute later, three more bells rang. One minute of silence for the other victim.

By that time, at least 100 people stood on Dietrick Lawn, including the members of NAPS, who, according to their website, came to Virginia Tech to, “remind the nation that even in the midst of tragedy, small acts of kindness may leave a greater impression than many kind words.”

The media remained persistent throughout the event.

The same Red Cross representative who had covered a cameraman’s lens earlier walked over to a crying student during the second moment of silence.

“I’m blocking you from cameras,” she said.

“I’m just so angry,” the student said. “Why are they here?”

The Red Cross representative put her hand on her shoulder, and guided her in the direction the group was moving.

One of the members of NAPS began playing the violin. Media gathered around him. After the song was finished, the crowd proceeded to the Drillfield, led by members carrying “prayer flags.” The media followed, taking pictures, filming or holding their microphones within conversations among students.

This “problem,” this “intrusion,” as some have called it, again was in evidence at the university-wide moment of silence on the Drillfield later Monday morning.

The ceremony, which was organized by Hokies United, was marked by the toll of one bell from the tower of Burruss Hall at 9:45 a.m.

Media positioned themselves near the Hokie Stone memorial, on the steps of Burruss Hall and elsewhere within the crowd.

As volunteers walked out of Burruss, each carrying one white balloon, photographers hurried up the stairs to capture them walking. Their clicking cameras echoed.

One minute later, a bell tolled. At each toll, one white balloon was released.

At each toll, more clicks of cameras could be heard in the stillness.

The bell rang a total of 32 times, one time in memory of each victim.

About mid-way through, a photographer quietly walked up the Burruss steps and aimed his camera. A student, who was standing behind him, said, “Can you please move? You’re in my way.”

A release of 1,000 maroon and orange balloons concluded the ceremony. As the crowd looked up to the clear, blue sky to watch the balloons drift away, the zoom lenses of photographers’ cameras were pointed in the same direction.

Thousands of students, faculty and community members attended the ceremony, and to many students’ dismay, hundreds of media were present as well.

“There are so many photographers right here,” a student said on the phone while walking to her class after the ceremony. “They’re in my way.”

Despite the media presence, both ceremonies brought the community together to pay tribute to the innocent victims who lost their lives.

“The ceremony was really good,” sophomore Johnny Cahill said. “It was appropriate and the turnout was amazing. I was happy about that.”


Comments (14)


The media were horribly intrusive when we arrived on campus the evening of the murders. Upon seeing my daughter, a student at VT, I became extremely emotional, sobbing into her neck for some time. When I recovered enough to lift my head, there were about 10 photographers in our faces snapping away like it was some red carpet event. I was horrified and told them to leave us alone. Every time one of the media saw a student crying the next day at the Convocation or on campus, they were shoving their cameras into the traumatized student's face. It was rude, intrusive, and disgusting. I realize they have a story to tell, but did they need the hundreds upon hundreds of reporters and photographers for this? It is a violation of privacy to have someone documenting, without your consent, your private moments of utter despair and grief.

Denise Lacy | April 23, 2007 9:59 PM

I was at that morning memorial to remember the deceased victims of west ambler-johnston. The crowd of students was supposed to be reflecting and praying in a circle, but the cameramen basically pushed us around so that they could film in the center of all the action. I personally had to stay back because not only were they pushing students but they were also fighting each other and jockeying for position. I heard one camera guy say "Heck, let's give them a semi-circle" so as to just be somewhat accomodating. It was rude, insincere, and a great burden to our already-strickened grief.

The leaders of the reflection even tried to make us chant a song of reflection to honor the victims, but I saw many held back because of the constant cameras vulturing over them.

They showed a complete lack of distaste for our grief and suffering, and for that, I am disappointed and angry with them.

omar maglalang | April 23, 2007 11:57 PM

I suggest we get our photos and video, for news reports, via satellite with laser focus.

These surveillance satellites will be able to tune into any spot on earth and broadcast live images and sound, without being intrusive or "pushy".

They are, for all intents and purposes, invisible and absent. Or seem to be. Telejournalism will capture even more intimate scenes, without invasive apparatus and camera clowns, without wires and lights.

vaspers the grate | April 24, 2007 12:31 AM

How horrible of the reporters to act this way. I've got one word for them......Inconsiderate!! I'm so sorry for the way they treated you all. Maybe you can get the police to put up barricades & have them 1/2 a mile away!!

Wendy from Kentucky | April 24, 2007 12:48 AM

I'm so sorry for the lack of compassion and consideration that the media have shown. They are in such a hurry to be the first to capture a story or a picture....that they don't care that they are intruding or ruining the moment for people, who need to grieve. I'm so sorry.
Media need to get a grip....there should be a law that makes them stay a certain feet or yards away...using a zoom lens or something. We, the public..don't need THAT much information...So, STOP....

Sandra from Texas | April 24, 2007 3:24 PM

yet we all are here reading what has been broad casted.. and if it were not we would all say events like these need to be shown to remember..

null | April 24, 2007 10:41 PM

"null": Why hide your name? The point of the story is how rude and invasive they've been, and how they've been treating us. I'd say they can film us and take pictures, but they should stand away from us, keep their distance, don't get in our space, and don't make us feel so uncomfortable. They don't seem to know what we're going through and they don't seem to care. They've been pretty rude to me, personally.

Kevin Cupp | April 24, 2007 10:55 PM

Ross Alameddine was in a class of my fathers and there had to be not one but TWO policemen guarding the entrance to the classroom because media was trying to impose on the grieving classmates/professor.

Can't we all try and get on with our normal lives, as saddened as we are, without having photog's in our face?

no wonder britney shaved her head.
it would make me crazy to have people in my face when i'm going through a horrible time, too.

S from the Burg | April 25, 2007 12:11 AM

Continued prayers and warm wishes for the VT community, i am completely heartbroken over the media's coverage of this disaster. All too much time was directed at the evil pathology and precious little focus surrounded the victims individually we were saturated with all the stories of the bullying and estrangement that created this monster's disease but we've learned all too little of the lives lost their achievement aspirations. I understand privacy but there are respectful ways to present the magnitude of who we lost without so a wide audience can connect and validate the lives of the victims as opposed to energizing the misfits and malcontents, thanks to the media we now know more about the hollow existence of an unmedicated psychopath than anything about enriched integrated and inspirational lives lost, get this right broadcasters get this right

dd | April 25, 2007 2:55 AM

I miss being with you guys, keep pushing, I know I'm trying.

I'm sickened by this news of media coverage ...

This is why I went into effects research and never went into the business.

You guys are always on my mind.

Chris McCollough | April 25, 2007 3:33 AM

I'm afraid I'm part of the annoying media presence that was on your campus for the past eight days. I just returned home, but won't ever forget the people of Virginia Tech. Despite your clear exhaustion with the corporate media, we were always treated with respect. I hope I, and my colleagues treated you the same way.

On Monday, a student injured in the terrible events of 4/16, came to visit the drill field memorial. I was there with my camera and instinctively looked at that as a poignant moment. I trained my camera on him and his friends, when one of them came up to me and asked "Do you mind?" I replied "not at all" and turned off the camera and pointed it in the other direction.

The thing is, we're not all unfeeling, cynical monsters, and most of us were trying to tell very human stories. I'm a father first and approach everything from that construct. So for every frame I shot, I was thinking "what if this were my child?" It was a good thing I was wearing sunglasses, because at many times, I could not contain the tears from welling up in my eyes.

Please know that many of us know death, suffering, loss, and carnage all too well. I nearly left my daughter without a father, and my wife without a husband in a rocket attack in Baghdad. I stood at the gash of the Pentagon on 9/11 und witnessed untold horrible, brutal, murderous chaos unfold before my lens. My neighbors were terrorized by the DC sniper. We've lost friends and colleagues in Iraq.

I am inspired by the strength and courage of VT students, families and staff. I can't speak for all the media, but I assure you I did my level best to balance my duties with respect for the VT community.

On a technical/blogosphere note. I managed to save the memorial fund badge and embed code on my blog that adds the badge to my sidebar. It would be great if Planet Blacksburg had some code on the front page that people could cut and paste to their blogs. I'd be more than happy to Twitter about it and direct folks to it.

Much love and respect.

Jim Long | April 25, 2007 11:49 AM

Jim - thanks for your post. Although I've been really annoyed by the behavior of the media on campus this past week, I have also seen that some media members have tried not to be obtrusive. Unfortunately, those media members who placed the importance of "getting a photo" over the feelings of others were most evident. I had some bad experiences: one in which a media member pushed directly in front of me during one of the moment of silence observations meanwhile, shoving his camera right in people's faces, including a little boy who was standing next to me. I also had a cameraman yell at me to get out of his shot so he could get a "good" picture of Harper Hall. And I have heard some horrible stories of intrusion from one of the families who lost a member. I am sure that many others here have worse stories - including the one printed above.

The people here at VT have needed to be together this week, and it has been really difficult to do that in public areas. Many of us have gathered in private places where we can shut the doors - but that shouldn't have to be the way it is. It is hard enough to deal with what has happened without being treated like props for a media show, or as if our grief doesn't matter when someone has to get a particular story or photo.

I realize that many media members are familiar with death and loss, but perhaps it has made many of them insensitive to the pain of others. If you have any influence with your colleagues, I ask that you try to talk to them about this issue.

Katie | April 25, 2007 1:24 PM

I'm a member of the media as well, and like every profession, the inconsiderate assholes of our business who can't figure out how to do their job humanely reflect poorly on the majority that do.

I've been in television news for 24 years - 15 on a national level - and I have never seen a media gathering this large and intense. Not for Katrina, Monica-gate, you name it. It was crowded for everyone and made working there difficult.

Va Tech saw the whole spectrum of experience and sensitivity of those in the media: from sympathizers such as Jim to vultures who "stick a camera in your face."

That said, I'm sure someone thought I was a real jerk when I inadvertently stepped on a Hokie Stone memorial, smashing some flowers (I couldn't see my feet because of the sound bag). I was shoved (deservedly) by a mourner and I was apalled at myself when I realized what had happened. I stopped instantly and tried to repair the damage and apologize to anyone (God?) who was listening.

I can tell you, as can any Tech grad or compassionate human being standing anywhere on Planet Earth within sight of a television, demanded to know what was happening on campus that instant; and who were the victims: and why did they die, and all of the other journalistic W's.

I know this sounds harsh to people who have had to endure the camera crush like a swarm of bees (who also have a pleasant function for the planet) in the worst of all times, but it's an ugly picture of what freedom looks like.

You can't tell the press to just cover happy times and Hokie football and then not let them on campus when evil happens.

The only serious alternative to the messy press gaggle is state-run television like they have in Russia and China, where a state bureaucrat decides two days after the fact what you get to know. Either you let them all in or you don't.

I'm not excusing bad manners or behavior. All requests for distance by non-public figures (people who aren't poiticians, criminals, celebrities, etc.)should be honored. I'm embarrassed that the request at AJ wasn't respected, and had I been there I would have dressed down the "woman with the microphone." My suggestion is to take down names and call letters if you see it again.

(A brief sidebar about touching the camera: The reason photographers are sensitive about it is that their eye is usually up to it and can get whiplash easily.)

There were a lot of tears behind those cameras, microphones and notepads. Mine included. I don't know of anyone in my business who enjoys being in the gaggles you described, but no one has figured out a better alternative.

Mark Barroso, VT '80 | April 26, 2007 11:16 PM

My friends and I came to VA Tech on Sunday April 22,2007 to send our condolences and even though I do not attend VA Tech (my friends do) I felt annoyed by the media presence and my friend and I even mocked them as we walked by "oh no we are reporters and we have no life but to intrude on those mourning, dont you have a family? oh no they left you after you stayed at VA Tech to try and find new news when there is nothing new to report" and just glared at them. Everywhere we walked, it seemed as if a camera was on us and I did not enjoy it, I was trying to walk, have a moment of silence and take it all in while this camera man is walking backwards in my business. I almost wished he had fallen backwards on his bum so I could get a laugh out of his stupidity and maybe it would teach them to GO HOME and find other news to report.

I think all the students at VA Tech need to ask the police and the President of the University to ask these people to leave (which they can) and also ask those ministry people that try and shove bibles down your throat saying that God wanted these people to die because they were sinners, they need to go home too....

GOD BLESS VA TECH... We Will Prevail!!!!

Rebecca Spilman , East Tennessee State U | April 27, 2007 9:19 AM