Virginia Tech University senior Austin Morton was used to finding sources for her stories.
But when a student killed 32 others and himself on April 16, Morton found herself on the other side; she's the former resident adviser of the residence hall where the shooter, Seung Hui-Cho lived. National news organizations clamored for an interview with her.
"I can't even list them all on two hands," said Morton, one of three panelists at the "Covering a Tragedy" session at the ONA conference Thursday in Toronto.
"I'll just say that some were more respectful than others."
Respectful journalists were professional, articulate and straightforward about what they wanted, she said. The disrespectful ones included those who sneaked into residence halls, pressed sources who didn't want to talk and sensationalized the story.
The Chesapeake, Va., native never gave an interview, and the experience changed her feelings about her profession and her approach to covering stories.
"I now have some insight into how to properly cover a tragedy and simultaneously balance my occupational commitments with the emotions of those involved," Morton wrote in an essay for BigLickU.com, a social networking and news Web site for college students. The essay, which focused on Morton's views as a young journalist, is one of three she wrote for the site three months after the shootings.
Writing her own story was therapeutic and allowed her to make sure her story was told correctly, she said. "I felt like I had found peace with it and I wanted to give other people peace in what I had found."
During Thursday's session, Morton advised journalists covering tragedy to be professional. She recalled a USA Today reporter who said, "I know this really sucks," when asking for an interview. Morton said she told the reporter the phrase trivialized what had happened and ended the conversation.
"In the digital age, when you have so much at your fingertips, the potential for excess is very great," said Morton, who has written for The Roanoke Times and several campus publications. "Just really, keeping your humanity in check. You are a person covering other people and you need to remember that."
Media coverage wasn't all bad, she said. Some of it captured the university's sense of community.
Morton said that she wants to work for a magazine, rather than a newspaper or other media that thrives on breaking news. She wants more time to reflect on what she's writing and put things into context.
-- Raechal Leone