The dictionary is only so big. Words are not equal to the task of conveying the violence on the campus of Virginia Tech this week. The closest media template was the Columbine murders. But this massacre set a new record and words like “horrific” and “brutal” just weren’t enough.

There was no lack of words. But saturation coverage of every conceivable angle is not sufficient. People need to get a grip on something as big and terrible as this. Inevitably, even in the age of the internet, we turn first to the major news media. What should we expect of them?

Here are some guiding questions:

What happened?

People need to know the facts, told as clearly and accurately as possible, without dramatic and presumptuous reporting. As tragedies and disasters turn into media events, some celebrity reporters tend to pour their own emotions into it. There is another tendency among some media now to weave “raw data” reports into cycled news updates, but tragedy is raw enough. The human narrative of reporting those facts satisfies our need for a snapshot.

What does it mean?

“Explaining” a massacre of 32 innocent people is not possible. The media needs to learn words like “evil” instead of the euphemisms it employs to avoid offending the public. At Virginia Tech, students who survived the rampage called it what it was: evil. Franklin Graham, heir of evangelist Billy Graham’s ministry, was on campus with a team of helpers. He frankly told a cable news anchor that “from the Garden of Eden when man fell,” the presence of sin has been manifested in acts of violence like this shooting. “Of course, what he did was evil, no question,” he continued. “But we have to urge forgiveness. And the most immediate thing we have to do is minister to these students and their families who need healing and comforting.” That was clear, blunt, direct and fair.

What is the larger story?

The media fanned out across the campus of Virginia Tech to uncover every angle. Examining the gunman’s profile, background, clues to his mental state, behaviour and relationships helps us see whether the blow-up could have been prevented. But it’s a fine line between analysis and blame. Only a day after the shootings many of the conversations between reporters and analysts centred on the question: “Why didn’t someone stop him sooner?”

Gunman Cho Seung-Hui had been known by his English professors as deeply troubled, which was reflected in his writings. One of those professors said his students “have been overwhelmed with guilt over not reporting Cho’s behaviour to officials”. Coverage highlighted the obstacles built into a culture of civil liberties in which the rights of a disturbed person clash with the rights of people around him to be safe from avoidable harm.

The media has a responsibility to reveal disorders in a system and to hold people accountable for correcting them. The late Pope John Paul II pointed that out in one of his last documents, “Rapid Development“. “The communications media have acquired such importance as to be the principal means of guidance and inspiration for many people in their personal, familial and social behaviour.”

Guidance and inspiration? By the second day of coverage on Virginia Tech, some media were running headline stories about “all the guilt going around by those who might have done more”, as one anchorman put it. They even started asking students if they held the school’s administration responsible for mishandling the shooting spree.

How can we be protected?

That’s a large global issue right now. Though it happened on American soil, it happened on a campus known as a safe refuge. This was an assault on humanity. At times like this we want to know what’s happening in our society, and how can we keep it from happening again?

Most media outlets featured analysis of the predicament of gunmen showing up at schools and opening fire. Time magazine’s on-line edition ran a piece entitled “What Can Schools Do?” which stated the premise well: “When it comes to the complex intersection of campus safety and mental health, the questions of what counts as sufficient warning signs and how universities should respond to them often end up in court.” Nearly all media carried run-downs of warning signs for spotting disturbed students.

But the best use of that information is advice on what to do with it.

Fox News on-line offered a piece that reflected good use of media. “The most important thing for a fellow student, family member or a professor to do, according to experts, is to let a troubled person know that there are places for him or her to turn to, whether it be a school counsellor, a religious figure, friends, or yourself.”

In that same article, a criminal justice professor said “the most important preventive measure against the next Virginia Tech or Columbine is one that the media needs to take.”

His advice is wise, and difficult for modern media. “We can do a lot of overreaction… but one thing we can certainly try to do is tone down the discussion of this being the biggest, the baddest, the deadliest on record… That just invites a few other people who identify not with the victims but the perpetrator to see if they can make another record.”

That story ran the day NBC News would receive the notorious packet the gunman mailed during the pause in his rampage. Media coverage was about to get much worse.

What news should the media not report?

In its Code of Ethics, the Society of Professional Journalists has four principles and standards of practice, each with a list of guidelines. One of them is “minimise harm.” It lists this: “Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief,” among other stern rules, like “Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort… Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.”

But in a mind-boggling lapse of sensitivity, taste and common sense, NBC aired what it gravely called “a multi-media manifesto” created and produced and sent by the mass murderer. It was horrific. One virtually had to go numb not to be affected by this assault to human sensibilities. The Fox News article earlier that day had quoted the criminal justice professor as saying: “By saturating the public with images and reminders of the horrors, we in the process turn the perpetrator into a celebrity and invite others to follow in his bloody footsteps.”

Other television networks picked up the video and audio and ran them in a loop that kept cycling the insanity across the world’s screens. The backlash came fast and furious. Virginia Tech students were devastated. Victims’ relatives cancelled interviews with the network.

NBC issued a defensive statement the next day. “The decision to run this video was reached by virtually every news organisation in the world, as evidenced by coverage on television, on websites and in newspapers.” That is precisely the hideous problem with it. Once it was let loose, it took on a life of technological infamy, and cannot be called back. This was the media at its worst.

“The call for today’s media to be responsible – to be the protagonist of truth and promoter of the peace that ensues – carries with it a number of challenges,” Pope Benedict wrote in his message for the 40th World Communications Day. “These are distortions that occur when the media industry becomes self-serving or solely profit-driven, losing the sense of accountability to the common good.”

Where is God in all this?

The media have a great deal of power to enlighten, ennoble and unite people. “The modern technologies increase to a remarkable extent the speed, quantity and accessibility of communication,” wrote John Paul, “but they above all do not favour that delicate exchange which takes place between mind and mind, between heart and heart, and which should characterise any communication at the service of solidarity and love.”

At their best, however, they can. Special reports emerged of heroes who saved lives, a Holocaust survivor who put himself in front of the shooter to protect his students, a young man who huddled in terror until he realised someone needed to bar the door of the classroom as he heard the gunman coming. So he got up and did that, saving more lives. Stories recalled the lives of the 32 victims of the shootings, “from different backgrounds and different continents,” as CNN reported. These put a face on each victim and gave their lives deserved respect.

In airing these stories, media serve their highest purpose and facilitate “that delicate exchange” and the common good. Long ago the town crier summoned the community to come together and buzz over the news. But now, nearly everyone in the village is crying, in one way or another, and our shared experiences of pain and suffering has created a common language that can speak to human dignity. We’re still finding the words.

Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy Award winning journalist who reported for Time magazine for more than 20 years. Until recently, she hosted the popular national radio shows The Right Questions and Issues and Answers on Relevant Radio. She blogs at InforumBlog.com.

Sheila Liaugminas

Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy award-winning Chicago-based journalist in print and broadcast media. Her writing and broadcasting covers matters of faith, culture, politics and the media....