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Press leaves Jonesboro feeling raw; forum to explore public anger

By Martha FitzSimon

04.10.98

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Listen to Webcast."Speak Out:
Be Heard"

Monday, April 13, 6:55-8:30 p.m. Eastern
On Monday, April 13, The Freedom Forum, The Jonesboro Sun and Arkansas State University will sponsor "Speak Out: Be Heard," a public forum at The Forum in Jonesboro on media coverage of the Westside Middle School tragedy, where two students killed a teacher and four girls and wounded 10 others March 24. The forum, from 6-7:30 p.m. Central time, is is part of The Freedom Forum's "Free Press/Fair Press" initiative. (Live cybercast 6:55-8:30 p.m. Eastern.)

JONESBORO, Ark. — The national media spotlight no longer shines on the Jonesboro area of Arkansas, where two young boys ambushed their classmates at Westside Middle School March 24.

With the funerals and burials complete but the emotional wounds still fresh, two local ministers reflected on how the national media treated their community during the tragedy.

Benny Baker...
Photo by Scott Maclay
Benny Baker
To the 51,000 residents of the Bible-belt city of Jonesboro and the surrounding area, the flood of media on the day of the shootings and the days following was overwhelming, said Benny Baker, minister at the Bono Church of Christ, who spent most of that Tuesday counseling at the school.

The tragedy, and the media, hit hard in Bono, Baker said.

Many of the victims lived in Bono, a tiny, rural, working-class town about three miles from Westside Middle School, so they felt the impact because they knew most everyone involved, from victims to killers. Rev. Baker said that while most of the national media were polite and he respected their right to do their job, there were just too many of them pushing microphones into the faces of people struggling with a crisis and unaccustomed to media attention.

Baker said he refused to broadcast the funeral service of one of his church members, Shannon Wright, the schoolteacher who was shot and killed trying protect a student, to the media. "It was a private time," he said.

The Rev. Phillip McClure of Trinity Church in Jonesboro agreed that the media swarm on the day of the shooting was insensitive. "I feel like the general sense in the community now about the press is that an event happened that was close and dear to a lot of people in our community, that they came in, got the story, and left," he said. "I spent most of [March 24] at one of our family's homes, and they're three doors down from the school campus. We watched all of the trucks ride in and out and the helicopters. ... It was disturbing to see them fly in, grab [photos] and fly out."

The day after the shooting, McClure was at Indian Mall, the only mall in Jonesboro, ministering to anyone needing to talk. The media, knowing that people would be at the mall, also arrived. "About 50 percent of [the media] that I saw were respectful," he said. "About a quarter of them could have cared less; they could have been in any city for any shooting, and they got the story, the shots they wanted and walked away. I would say about a quarter of them were sensitive to a point but were more pushy or belligerent than I would care for someone to be."

McClure said the media portrayal of the Jonesboro area and of Arkansas as being backward and trigger-happy showed a lack of sensitivity and understanding of the community. "I have been incensed by Time magazine putting out the cover article 'Armed & Dangerous [April 6, 1998 issue],' " he said. "I was infuriated by ... NPR [and] 'Nightline' ... that used the Jonesboro incident as a lead-in to a story that, it seemed to me, could not have been done in a short amount of time. ... They drew this triangle of Pearl, Miss., Paducah, Ky., and Jonesboro, Ark., and said, 'It must be the South. You're teaching your kids to kill things.' "

While it would be easy to blame the media for putting violent thoughts into youthful minds, the media are not at the root of society's ills, said Baker, who counseled many students and teachers at the school on the day of the shootings and afterward. God and faith are missing from the lives of most Americans, he said. Even with the parents' best intentions, "if God's not present, right and wrong cannot be taught," he said.

"The media need to take part in the healing," Baker said, and not add to suffering during a tragedy. He suggested that in the future the media pool their resources in times of tragedy so that they don't overwhelm communities.

McClure said that "the ideal situation would have been that no one infringe on the genuine trauma and distress of that situation and let the natural need for time and grieving to take place without them and then to write a kind and caring story following it.

"Yes, that is very idealistic," he said.

McClure noted that some in the media showed a great deal of respect and understanding, such as the Chicago Tribune reporter who covered Indian Mall the day after the shooting.

"She spoke words that were genuinely respectful to people," he said. "And when they said no, she said thank you and walked away. There was no second-guessing." He said the reporter recognized that she was gathering news that others may simply read or watch but "that someone else is actually living this thing out."

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