Integrity

The Aurora tragedy has given me a lot to think about. Two subjects, though, I feel compelled to discuss in more detail.  First, I want to talk about the article in the Denver Post and its contribution to the more widespread issue of journalistic integrity.  Then, in the next part, I plan on discussing the overall situation of the public antagonism toward public safety and how it affects the nation's emergency services.

There's a dark side to the world of journalism that I hate.  I have never professed to be a journalist; I am an author and a blogger.  I don't report news. I, however, understand journalism as a science and as an art. I appreciate those who maintain objectivity and report the facts in an unbiased fashion. Journalism is supposed to be about shining bright lights on the facts. I am aware that journalists are trained to maintain a skeptical mind, in order to dig deeper, so they can extract the essence of the story and convey those elemental ideas to the reader.  

I am also very aware of the role that journalism has in "keeping things honest".  This relates to the responsibility of all of society to be open and truthful with one another, but even more so between government and the governed, where there is a constant flux of trust issues.  I am of the belief that journalists have a very important, constitutionally protected role as part of our society to give us the real story, since there are those in power who constantly strive to manipulate information, or at least to present it in the best light to maintain that power.  Therefore, the media has an important role in exposing governmental waste, failure, and truthlessness.

As a responsible leader, however, the side I detest is that journalists also have the ability to throw a grenade without any consideration of the damage it will do.  Journalism as a industry has a tremendous responsibility to show integrity and to get the story straight.  The paradox of journalism though is that there are a significant number of journalists who believe that it isn't their responsibility to get the whole story. This seems paradoxical simply because while presenting both sides of the story should be the goal, reporting ALL the facts doesn't generate conflict.  

Thus, the whole point of my discussion today, the story written by Chuck Murphy and Karen Crummy, and printed in The Denver Post on July 24, 2012 with the title, "Some of the most injured in Aurora massacre waited for help".  While I hate to point anyone toward this link for fear that the increase in hits might indicate approval, it really illustrates the discussion.  Better yet, I'm not even going to discuss the whole article; let's just look at the beginning of the story, where the journalists involved led off with the following:

While Aurora police charged into a multiplex theater within three minutes of the first report of a shooting there, more than 20 additional minutes passed before medical personnel arrived at the epicenter, a period when at least one victim was still alive but in desperate need of medical attention,dispatch tapes from that night show.

As a writer, I understand the reason: conflict is important to a story, as it generates emotion.

You see, without emotion, readers, or shall I say, readers with no attention span, might not be compelled to read the story.  As it is, I wonder how many readers of The Denver Post read the first paragraph and read nothing else of the story, and walked away thinking that the emergency response professionals of Aurora are incompetent. Regardless, the rest of the story, or shall I say, the rest of what was printed, never came back and discussed the other perspectives.

For someone like me, who wants to understand the whole story, this is pretty frustrating, because I want to really understand the problems.  But for your basic reader, if the article doesn't drag me in, if it doesn't make me FEEL something, I'm not likely to read it.  And readership sells newspapers, drives ratings, and scores internet hits.  Therefore, as a journalist who wants to remain employed, or as a journalist who has an ego that needs stroking, or as a journalist who has a strongly formed opinion, in order to keep you interested in my crayon-scribbled trolling, I need to make you feel the tension.

As a writer, I see it all the time.  When I write an article that promotes open mindedness, reflection, and a value of other perspectives, I get a lot of nodding heads and agreement, but not a lot of comments.  When I write a rant, or I vent about something, I get e-mail.  I get comments. I get views from both sides of the story, but normally it's those who feel like their side hasn't been represented.  It generates traffic on my page. Conflict motivates people to do something, except that when improperly done, it motivates them to do the wrong somethings. In our case, articles like this cause the misinformed to react to the people who are trying to help them. And that is irresponsible.

I can understand the compulsion for a journalist to write in a manner by which interest is generated, because frankly, if my articles generate interest, my editor will be happier, and the publisher will be even happier yet. But it is irresponsible journalism that I am railing against, and it is that kind of journalism that needs to end.  It is the tabloid "journalism" that has seeped into mainstream media, the journalism of blame, the journalism that pours gasoline on a blazing fire, that throws out innuendo without offering any solutions and doesn't actually report the entire story, just the side that will create anger in people.  

These journalists write stories based on half-truths, or they present only the side of the story that will generate the most raw emotion. I said it earlier: Conflict creates emotion. Emotion sells newspapers.  People tune into emotion.  The cynical side to the world of journalism understands this and embraces it. Blame is modus operandi for many a journalist these days.  It seems like every journalist these days thinks they are the second coming of Woodward and Bernstein and instead, many of them come off as a poor imitation of Geraldo.

So, in the interest of fairness, let me provide some perspective.

If you have to have some tension to get you to read, here it is.  If you need me to point you toward real conflict, this is it.  And if you happen to be an aspiring journalist, or at least a journalist who can read past the first paragraph, there is the other side that Crummy and Murphy failed to capture, that of the responders.  I wasn't there, but having been in charge of some pretty complex incidents, I actually have some perspective.  

As we arrive on scene and into the middle of chaos, we realize, as always, we have to make decisions based on little or no facts. And although I have never commanded a scene like this one, I have been on some very rapidly cascading incidents.  I have had bystanders screaming at me so loudly and hysterically that I had to roll up my window just so I could request the resources they were screaming at me to get.  I have been literally dragged out of the seat of my truck by a crowd.  And I have been at incidents where three blocks away, people were pointing in the direction of the scene as we passed them.   

I know first hand what it is like to deal with a scene with multiple victims, emotional bystanders, weapons, explosions, weather, fire, no readily available resources, and many other perils, and dealing with the situation getting worse by the second.  And yet, I have no idea what this incident commander was going through at this disaster.

Maybe I'm being overly sensitive, but I listened to the audio and I resent the implications Crummy and Murphy made in their poorly presented article.  I can state without being there, but seeing video and listening to witness reports, the IC was likely overwhelmed in the first few minutes, having been sent to a report of a single gunshot victim, only to arrive at a rapidly emptying theater with dozens of victims, screaming, chaos, and within seconds, a rapid escalation in resource needs.  Picture it:

The engine company arrives to what is reported as a gunshot victim with a single ambulance and the duty officer responding.  We go to these all the time; Someone got upset, words were exchanged, someone has a gun, someone gets shot.  Many times it isn't even a serious call. 

In this case, though, the engine pulls up out front and people are exiting the theater in a panic.  The fire alarm is going off.  Some are critically injured.  Cars are leaving the parking lot, victims are wandering the lot as well, crying, screaming, moaning, begging for help.  Someone reports there is an active shooter.

Anyone who says they have an immediate grip on this is, pardon my language, full of shit. So if you are still reading, or if you happen to know Crummy or Murphy, maybe you can pass this on.

From the aspect of victim interface, let's just say that yes, it took 20 additional minutes from the "Aurora police first charging into the theater" to get "medical personnel to the epicenter".  To me, that isn't too bad, given what they had.  

The "medical personnel" (as they are referred to in the article) engage frantic, rapidly exiting crowds going the other way. They are being stopped by many of the wounded victims, but while these are able to walk away, they are not the worst of the injuries.  The medics also find tear gas present, darkness, and the film is still running.  And to compound things, the fire alarm is blaring, making it impossible to communicate, and the alarm has resulted in the other fifteen theaters' patrons ALSO exiting the building.  As these patrons exit, in a panic, they encounter dozens of wounded victims.  This triggers even more emotion and things are spiraling out of control.  Of course, there are also those who had to go gawk for a while or shoot video for their Twitter feed.

Okay, so let's just say that the "medical personnel" were able to deal with that quickly, although I don't know how.  But if they were, they then must overcome the knowledge that it was unknown if the shooter was alone, and I could be wrong, but I'm not even sure if they believed they had the shooter in custody in the first 20 minutes.  And of course, there was also the very real possibility that there were booby traps in place, after all, he laid a few at the feet of the cops in his apartment, hadn't he? Then they were able to get into the "epicenter", and what did they find there?  Multiple victims, theater seating (try extricating someone from between those sometime), and lots and lots of fear.  Fear of the unknown, fear of the known, fear of failing this challenge.  Fear of just surviving the incident.

Blame is the first arena of the cowards. People blame others when they perceive themselves as helpless.  People who blame do so often without looking in the mirror at what they brought to the problem.  At what they fail to do to solve the problem.  Blame is easy for those who can't do better.  So, you know, the fact that Aurora's "medical personnel" got "to the epicenter" in 20 minutes at all is pretty amazing if you ask me.  It's easy for those to point fingers when they have no idea what the issues are.  And if you are a know-it-all civilian who thinks they can do better, I challenge you to come on and show me.  I have that kind of confidence in what I have just related to you.  Anyone who thinks they didn't do a great job, really, can just STFU.

Therefore, I challenge the public to actually obtain the other side of the events.  For those of you out there who understand, I'd suggest praying for the people of Aurora, but not just the families and friends of the victims.  Pray also for the police, fire and EMS responders who did an outstanding job with really challenging odds and yet will revisit this disaster over and over again, wondering if they could have done something different.

The point of my post here is this: Can we improve?  Certainly.  There are tons of lessons to be learned from this incident.  I keep listening to the audio and making notes, thinking of things we can do to improve our response, not just to an active shooter scenario, but to any kind of mass casualty incident.  Better ideas for casualty collection points.  Better ideas for staging and recovery of units once they have transported.  Many, many lessons can be learned from this.  I would concede that even the Aurora responders are looking at the response and wishing they could have adjusted this or taken care of that.  But those facts have to be presented not as a failure of the response but as a means to improve.  For just as we did after Columbine, there were things we learned that helped us to change, and in this case, it will be the same.  But to suggest that the responders to this incident were not performing to the necessary standard is not just in poor taste, it is reckless and irresponsible.  If you haven't faced a situation like this yourself, you have no right to question the ability of someone who has to face life or death decisions every day, much less a scenario like this one.  So just shut it.  

To my colleagues; we must consistently seek improvement and we look to how we can better serve the public the next time.  But I want to publicly say that these folks did an outstanding job and they make me proud to be on the job.  They really underwent an amazing trial and were able to come out the other side.  Even if the trolls can't admit it, take it from someone who knows: you all did one Hell of a job, and you guys make us proud.

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Michael "Mick" Mayers

Battalion Chief with Hilton Head Island (SC) Fire and Rescue and an Emergency Response Coordinator with the United States Department of Health and Human Services’ National Disaster Medical System Incident Response Coordination Team.

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