Victims of tragedy and their families often struggle to create something worthwhile out of incalculable loss. To create awareness for their causes, they must learn how to manage the media. Karen Duffin reports on the intersection of tragedy and media coverage.
The Walkmen - Line by Line
BROOKE GLADSTONE: On Monday, another in a seemingly endless series of shootings, this time at a Nevada middle school, that left two dead one, one the young perpetrator, the other, a teacher.
EIGHTH-GRADER XENA ALLEN: - Mr. Landsberry. He went to go stop him and told him, put it down, the gun, it’s not worth it, put it down. And he shot him in the heart.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Victims of such horror struggled to create something worthwhile out of incalculable loss, and they often find they must learn how to manage the media to achieve their goals. The template for that kind of PR savvy was set back in 1999, after the massacre at Columbine High School, as Karen Duffin reports.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: …Littleton, Colorado.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: If you are just joining us, two young men, apparently dressed in long black trench coats….
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: …report students say there’ve been shots at Columbine High School.
CRAIG SCOTT: My name is Craig Scott, and I am a survivor of the Columbine High School shooting. I also lost my sister, Rachel Joy Scott.
KAREN DUFFIN: Craig was a student trapped in the library during the rampage. As he left the school, he confronted both his trauma and a country anxious to hear about it. Oprah called, Katie Couric called. He went on The Today Show two days after Columbine.
CRAIG SCOTT: - kids with trench coats on, they came into the library and they shot Isaiah.
KATIE COURIC: And then you, you played dead –
CRAIG SCOTT: I, I just ended up laying on the floor. I was, I was praying to God to give me courage.
KAREN DUFFIN: Each time a high profile tragedy occurs, the victims must decide, unsettled and unprepared, whether to share it.
STEVE SEIGEL: So everything is on the fly, and that creates a lack of perspective about what are the consequences of, of my doing this, or not doing this.
KAREN DUFFIN: That’s Steve Seigel from the Denver District Attorney's Office. He's worked with victims of Columbine, Aurora, Sandy Hook and many other major tragedies. He says public relations professionals can spend years learning how to calculate how one interview might affect a court case, a relationship, a reputation, five weeks or five years down the road. It's like playing chess; one move affects the next. But victims don't calculate.
STEVEN SEIGEL: The vast majority of people who are willing to cooperate with the media, they are looking to try to create some sense out of a senseless act.
KAREN DUFFIN: Craig Scott says talking to the press has been cathartic.
CRAIG SCOTT: It was therapeutic to be able to talk and have people listen and have people be supportive.
DARRELL SCOTT: Not everybody’s - wants to do that, and I understand that.
KAREN DUFFIN: That's Craig’s father, Darrell Scott.
DARRELL SCOTT: It has been not only therapeutic, but it's been a joy because it's like they're still with you, as long as you share their memory.
KAREN DUFFIN: Victims’ advocates like Steve Seigel say that the line between an interview feeling cathartic and feeling painful or even re-victimizing is thin. Darrell understood this.
DARRELL SCOTT: A lot of times media wants to see emotion, and I personally just made a decision, in the early days, not to perform for the camera. I don't answer a lot of questions, like how did you feel when you heard that your daughter died. I always just say, you know, like any other parent would feel.
KAREN DUFFIN: Sometimes victims use the media simply because it's the best way to spread the word.
JOHN WALSH: The parents of Adam Walsh, who’s been missing since yesterday noon.
KAREN DUFFIN: You may recognize that voice.
JOHN WALSH: I’m John Walsh. For 25 years, I’ve hunted fugitives all over the world. Tonight I’m taking….
KAREN DUFFIN: His son Adam was kidnapped from a shopping mall in 1981. He begged the press to cover the story, but he says they barely did. So one week into the search. John took some PR advice from an unlikely source.
JOHN WALSH: The county coroner said, raise the reward.
KAREN DUFFIN: This PR-savvy coroner told John to use the most basic tool of PR, a news hook.
JOHN WALSH: It'll intrigue the media. They’ll show up. And it will reinvigorate Adam’s case.
KAREN DUFFIN: Sure enough, the local papers showed up. But two weeks later, Adam Walsh was found dead. John still believes that press attention could have brought Adam home alive, with reason. As host of America's Most Wanted, he's used the media to help capture over 1200 criminals. Media pressure influences the decisions of police and politicians, and that influence is enough to make an otherwise press-shy person talk to the media.
BOB SWARTZ: I don’t know, from my point of view I didn’t think I had any choice.
KAREN DUFFIN: Bob Swartz is the father of internet activist Aaron Swartz. In 2011, the federal government charged Aaron with illegally downloading files over the MIT network. Amidst a very aggressive prosecution, Aaron committed suicide in January, and his death sparked an international outcry.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: He was a computer prodigy, an online activist, co-founder…
MALE CORRESPONDENT: He was an idealist who believed we had to live up to something that…
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Swartz was a hero of the Internet, but on Friday he was found hanged in his…
KAREN DUFFIN: Unlike the Scotts, Bob Swartz doesn't like talking to the press.
BOB SWARTZ: Yeah, I mean, it’s very – emotionally, it's incredibly hard, and I try to erect some degree of emotional distance but it’s very difficult. I mean, what happened was just so - shattering that one has a responsibility to make sure that these kinds of things don’t happen again.
KAREN DUFFIN: Bob’s goals are ambitious, to make all academic literature free, to modify federal computing laws and to make structural changes at MIT. So Bob did look for PR help, and he found a professional willing to advise him pro bono.
BOB SWARTZ: Well, I think he helped make sense, you know, begin to make sense out of what was going on, you know, try to understand how to approach this. I mean, it was a completely new experience, and I, I didn't have a clue.
KAREN DUFFIN: Bob is confronting institutions that have PR experience and deep pockets, but he has the advantages all victims and their families have, a public profile, deep tragically-earned credibility and an emotional story that provokes interest in arcane-sounding issues. So he can use the media to help level the playing field.
But moving from human interest to influence means learning how to attach a personal story to big issues and concrete solutions. In PR speak, this means learning how to bridge. John Walsh.
JOHN WALSH: When I got involved in trying to force the FBI and the Justice Department to stop opposing the Missing Children’s Bill, I knew that I would only have a short amount of time on air and I had to be succinct. I had to be articulate. I had to have a call to action. I’d better know what I was talking about. And I had to have something to say, other than crying and pleading for Adam.
KAREN DUFFIN: Walsh got his bill passed. And Bob Swartz, advocating after his son’s suicide, helped prompt Congress to introduce a bill called Aaron’s Law and MIT to conduct an internal review of its role in Aaron's case. Meanwhile, the Scotts have also become advocates for a larger cause, through an anti-bullying program they founded called Rachel's Challenge, based on the life and writings of Rachel Scott, Craig’s sister who died at Columbine. They say it's the largest school assembly program in the country and that it's prevented at least seven school shootings and 500 suicides.
But the passion that gives these particular advocates their power also saps their strength. This isn’t a product pitch. It's their lives, focused on the worst moment of their lives. John Walsh says:
JOHN WALSH: I say it to every victim, you really don't have an obligation to carry forward. If you can't carry forward financially, if you can't carry forward emotionally, if you can't carry forward because it's destroying your family relationships, then don't do it.
KAREN DUFFIN: Steve Seigel from the Denver District Attorney's Office says to remember you can say no to the press and, if you say yes, you can set the parameters. He also says to be realistic about what you can actually get from talking to the media.
STEVE SEIGEL: You know, you – you hear the word “closure” – telling my story will bring me closure. It, it just really does not, in my experience, provide that. And what the real search is for, incorporating this horrible experience into your current circumstances.
BOB SWARTZ: Now look, my son’s dead and everything else is meaningless, as compared to that. But you want to make sure that
maybe some small amount of good can come out of such an immense tragedy.
CRAIG SCOTT: People that say, Craig how you continue to talk about it to the media? You know, it’s like you don't get it. Just join me for one trip and see what I see and then tell me how could I not do it.
KAREN DUFFIN: Living in the spotlight is a challenging new reality for victims and their families. As Bob Swartz said, his son is dead. Everything after that is meaningless. But if they can learn how to play the media, while factoring in their own limits and tolerance for the game, they may be able to find some meaning, even in the meaningless. For On the Media, I’m Karen Duffin.