Violence at school yet again

Once again, a violent rampage in a suburban high school dominated the news across the country. At least until Dick Cheney entered a Washington hospital that same day complaining of chest pains.

After Columbine so gripped the nation in 1999, last Monday's high school shootings in Santee, a San Diego suburb, seemed, unfortunately, like an old story.

Columbine unfolded largely on television, punctuated by vivid images, real dangers, unprecedented loss and some outstanding reporting mixed with some journalistic excess. Political and social leaders kept the story alive long after the dead were carried away with calls for greater control of guns and the media, as well as revelations about plots and cults.

This time, "while lawmakers issued the usual expressions of sympathy and dismay.the talk was mostly of tax cuts and, on the Senate floor, work-place rules," the Washington Post

Tom Rosenstiel, director of Project for Excellence in Journalism, pointed out that even "press conferences about tax policy are overcovered. Columbine was overcovered." Coverage of the shootings by student Charles Williams at Santana High School was "more restrained," he said.

Restraint, said KNSD-TV San Diego news director Jim Sanders, defines "the gatekeeper role we have to play. It's exponentially more difficult when you compress that time line in which broadcasting decisions are made.when you're on live. And the first decision is whether or not to go live.

"You cannot report or make decisions off the police scanners," he explained. "It's too fragmented, too immediate. An officer on the scene is seeing a very narrow picture of reality. You can't take that perspective. It's not right, not ethical, probably not even legal."

KGTV (TV) San Diego planned the ultimate restraint for Friday night, blacking out the screen for an hour. Instead, the station was set to scroll messages for families to turn the set off and talk with each other.

"Monday was my birthday," said KGO-TV San Francisco news director Mike Stutz. "I was 49 when I came in. I had aged at least five years when the day ended."

KSWB news director Suzanne Black admitted what everybody else was thinking when she first heard the news: another Columbine.

If national attention faded, San Diego stations KNSD, KGTV, KFMB-TV and KSWB-TV continued through last week with follow-up coverage as well as memorials and court hearings often fed to cable news channels.

Veteran KNSD newsman Gene Cubbison reminded viewers that the first nationally covered school shooting took place in San Diego, in 1979.