Ronnie Agnew, a former executive editor of The Clarion-Ledger, is the executive director of Mississippi Public Broadcasting. He is a 1984 journalism graduate of Ole Miss. In 2008, Ronnie was named the 50th recipient of the Silver Em award presented by the journalism school. In 2003, he was inducted into the University of Mississippi’s Alumni Hall-of-Fame. Among many honors, Ronnie is a four-time judge for the Pulitzer Prize, and a champion for diversity in America’s newsrooms.
But here we were, some months later at Columbia University, judging at the highest journalistic level, the work of journalists who were on the frontline of the coverage — the writers, photographers and social media journalists producing drafts of history that forever will chronicle the pure evil that occurred that day. Virginia Tech would redefine our country’s sense of security and trust. It would get no worse. Or so I thought.
With 33 dead, I erroneously accepted with absolute certainty that society had reached a low that would never be revisited. Entry after painstaking entry gave my Pulitzer panel more than we could sometimes emotionally stand. It was an exhausting three days. It would not be unusual for panel members to walk away for a moment to release the heaviness.
As journalists, it was one thing to cover Virginia Tech from Mississippi, or Florida, or some other state detached geographically from the story’s Blacksburg, Va., setting. It was quite another to be in the middle of the non-stop coverage, with a public clamoring both for privacy and for answers.
The story was so brutal, so senseless, so deadly, its likelihood of being repeated seemed impossible.
In the years since Virginia Tech, mass shootings have left small towns across America bloodied and emotionally shattered. They are quiet towns that occupied tiny places on a map, going about their business without fanfare or notice until evil struck with a demonic force impossible to understand.
The execution-style murders of six teachers and 20 babies in Newtown, Conn, recently have ripped apart tender emotions that have obliterated previous notions that we have reached new lows as a society. A madman, a virtual child himself, killed our kids, halting the healing process from the last mass shooting and the one before that.
We are a nation in crisis because we have shown an inability to protect our kids. We are a nation in crisis when evil young people surpass mental health care, becoming ticking time bombs of anger and rage while lying in wait to destroy the lives of an unsuspecting public.
President Obama has visited four towns victimized by mass shootings during his time in office. One tragedy deserves no more attention than the other, especially for family members still struggling to understand. The destruction, the carnage, the gut-wrenching emotions left behind are the subjects of the media’s bright glare for a moment, and then the towns are left to recover on their own.
We live in the greatest country in the world, with some of the brightest minds given by God. The ability to prevent tragedies at schools such as Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., rests with us. When the Pulitzer panel meets in another month to judge journalism’s best work, there will be plenty of entries to consider on coverage of the Sandy Hook massacre.
Don’t think for one minute the journalists selected for that panel won’t be affected when they read such coverage. They will do their jobs as journalists. But they will always remember that they are first Americans. And in that context, it makes the judging process an extremely emotional experience.