The late Cole Campbell, an editor who championed what is known as “public journalism,” had a nuanced view of the First Amendment as it applied to newspapers. It was not there necessarily in the service of journalists and their pursuit of unvarnished truth, he wrote. Its first purpose was to serve readers’ need for information in the context of how they live their daily lives in all their complexity and shades of gray.
I was reminded of this reformulation these past few weeks in the aftermath of the Oct. 9 shooting at NAU. The incident certainly captured the public’s attention – the Daily Sun’s website page views increased 8-fold above a normal day. But because it happened on a college campus, full disclosure of the details bumped up against federal statutes protecting the privacy of students – expressed by some as a “sensitivity” to the victims as they remained in hospital or awaiting funeral arrangements.
Two weeks later, key pieces of puzzle that might help readers better understand how such violence could happen are still hidden from public view. What triggered the fight that escalated into gun violence has still not been revealed, nor has any description of the party attended by the participants in the fight. Daily Sun reporters have connected as many dots as possible by reporting on the alcohol-fueled party culture on Franklin Avenue that was the backdrop for the fight and the shooting. But statements by student witnesses have been withheld by police in their entirety – not just identifying information such as place of residence or relationship to the victims or shooter. This is rare for Flagstaff, but then again so are capital cases involving students.
The NAU police and county attorney have also remained mum on the circumstances behind the reduction of the charge from 1st-degree murder to second-degree, followed a day later by a grand jury indictment for first-degree murder. Is it a runaway grand jury or did the county attorney’s office change its mind once again?
It wasn’t sensitivity or privacy but perhaps just inertia that appeared to be at work when NAU marketing officials denied student journalists access to NAU-TV for a live broadcast later in the day of the shooting. The university had already disclosed the names of the victims and suspect. The students had already prepared a news report and posted the video on the NAZ Today website. But no regular, live newscast was scheduled on a Friday, and the marketing department wasn’t going to make an exception. Broadcast journalism students are right to ask just what it would take to justify an unscheduled newscast if a fatal shooting on campus doesn’t qualify?
The next few weeks will likely see more details emerge, balanced against the compassion for the victims and even the shooter that students and community members are expressing. And there will likely be a chance to discuss the role of guns in the escalation of such violence (see box). The First Amendment will still be there, but in this case it’s being wielded more like a