Feeding the beast

Learned a new word—mediagenic—from an online news story about Monday’s shooting at Santana High School. The word found its context in the middle of an emotional piece at Salon.com about how our country is failing our teenagers.

“The burning question raised by San Diego—and by the children we have lost at Columbine, at Jonesboro, Ark., or Springfield, Ore.; by the children we have lost to violence in inner-city schools; by the students we are losing far less mediagenically in public school classrooms every day—is not why this is happening but what we are willing to do about it,” wrote Meredith Maran, author of Class Dismissed: A Year in the Life of an American High School.

Mediagenic, a take on photogenic, “suitable for being photographed.” It’s the attribute of a tragic event that scores it the front page of the Reno Gazette-Journal and incessant breaking news broadcasts that cut into your regularly scheduled programs.

That’s the nature of the beast that keeps us informed—it feeds on passion (aka sex) and tension (aka violence).

Another story on the shooting, also at Salon, noted an uncanny calmness in students and parents immediately following the event. One boy told reporters he ran back to his locker during the shooting to get his camera because, the boy said, it was a big day and he “wanted to remember it or something.”

My son, a sophomore at Reed High School, said that he watched the special news broadcasts for two solid hours during school, in two different classes.

“Now they’ll be complaining again about how violent kids are,” he said. “They’ll be saying it was the violent video games that Marilyn Manson plays. Or the violent movies that Korn watches.”

By “they,” he meant either the media straight up or the thinkers who think up stuff for the media to think about. Mediagenic stuff.

I don’t know how the media should handle a Columbine or a Santana High School story. It does seem too easy these days to grab a gun and become the star bad guy on the six o’clock news. Yes, violence is mediagenic. But maybe it’s not the fault of video games, Marilyn Manson or Hollywood. Maybe it’s the rest of us.

Last week, I wrote a story about flood protection in the Truckee Meadows. Part of the story dealt with earthen dams at reservoirs like Boca and Stampede. If the dams ever failed, broke or overflowed, Reno would get hit with a lot of water. A mistake in the story made it past editors, only to be caught in print by our attentive high-school intern, Brian Jackson.

During the Flood of 1997, something like 18,000 cubic feet of water per second flowed into Reno. I knew that, but my brain farted, and I wrote 18 cfs. That’s one slow river. We weren’t exactly deluged with calls from knowledgeable readers. But it’s a reminder of the fallibility of the press, including me.