Joe Hight was on the editorial staff of The Daily Oklahoman (now rebranded The Oklahoman) when the April 19, 1995 bombing of the Alfred E. Murrah building occurred. He was victims’ team leader of the newspaper’s Oklahoma City bombing coverage that won two national SPJ awards, a Dart Award for Excellence in Coverage of Violence and many others.
In 2020, Hight is director and member of the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame, an editor who led a Pulitzer Prize-winning project, the journalism ethics chair at the University of Central Oklahoma, president/owner of Best of Books, and author of the nonfiction book “Unnecessary Sorrow.”
First PersonWhere we ask members of the community to write their first-person account of a particular aspect of our City.
I do a “Victims and the Media Week” each semester in my Media Ethics courses at the University of Central Oklahoma. It’s a topic I have personal experience with as a journalist and now am teaching as an endowed chair of journalism ethics.
I ask each student to pick a victim from the Oklahoma City bombing and 9/11 and then write a reflection piece on them. I talk to them about ethical coverage, how their coverage affects victims, their community and themselves. I emphasize the importance of self-care and being what I call the “Modern Journalist” who can be tough and sensitive at the same time.
But the exercise that has the most impact is the one in which I ask a student to volunteer to be a “victim” to demonstrate the “Wall of Grief.” This exercise demonstrates to them how victims may react during the aftermath of tragedy, and that media insensitivity could potentially harm them.
The students divide up in groups and barrage the “victim” as he enters the room with phrases that are typically said to victims and their families. They repeat the phrases until I tell them to stop.
One group of students expresses sympathy:
• “My condolences.”
• “Thinking of you.”
• “I’m so sorry.”
Another group expresses anger:
• “This is outrageous!”
• “We’ll retaliate!”
• “They’re terrorists!”
• “They’re criminals!”
• “Death to them all!”
Then there’s the “disbelief/denial” group who chants:
• “It’s unbelievable!”
• “Not you!”
• “We’re stunned!”
• “Never thought it would happen here!”
• “Why you!”
While all other groups are chanting, the final group asks questions:
• “Who did this?”
• “Are you OK?”
• “When will you have closure?”
• “Can you forgive them?”
Then, with the ‘victim” seated and wide-eyed at this point, the whole class speaks softly and then gets louder and louder with the words, “HOW DO YOU FEEL?”
I then ask the “victim” the question: “How DO you feel?” to show how insensitive it can be.
I sometimes get stunned silence from the “victim.” Other times, I get “overwhelmed.” Then sometimes, “I’m angry.” Some of the volunteer “victims” are so shell-shocked by the exercise that I need to counsel and reassure them afterward.
I conduct this exercise every semester so students will learn the proper way to approach and treat victims who had private lives and then were thrust into the public spotlight by a tragedy they could not comprehend. But I also do it, so they remember what happened in Oklahoma City, now more than 25 years ago.
I’m surprised each semester what I learn from them.
Two UCO students have told me that their mothers were pregnant with them and had appointments scheduled at 9 a.m. April 19, 1995, at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
They now know their mothers might have been victims of the blast that sent shock waves worldwide and killed and injured too many people we all knew or loved. But because their mothers were sick or late, the students were spared by fate.
Others tell me about a grandparent or relative who was near the blast site and never fully recovered from the shock of it.
Others tell me that their father was a police officer or firefighter who won’t talk about it today.
They’ve faced the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing in their own lives, even though most weren’t even born at the time of the bombing.
Other students who did not have personal connections are jarred when they realize how they can relate to the victims they picked.
I then tell them about the victims I remember the most, ones I didn’t know personally but are seared into my head as if I did know them, ones whose lives were cut short because of a powerful bomb built with a yellow Ryder rental truck, ones who were part of the coverage when I was The Oklahoman’s victims team leader during the immediate aftermath of the bombing.
One victim, however, always stands out.
I remember hesitating to make the call to the America’s kids day care at the Murrah building in the days following April 19. I knew that center probably had a phone answering machine to take messages left after hours. But was it still working? I dreaded that it still could be in that rubble downtown.
But I called and heard this:
“Hi, you’ve reached America’s Kids child development center. My name is Dana Cooper, and I’m sorry I can’t come to the phone right now. I’m probably with the children or touring the facility. If this is concerning child-care rates, employment opportunities or you’re just checking in on your child, please include that in your message and I’d be happy to call you back. Thanks.”
I shuddered when I heard the recording say the answering machine’s mailbox was full, probably from parents frantically calling about their children.
I then say something like this to my students:
“Dana Cooper dreamed of becoming a kindergarten teacher. She was in her senior year at the University of Central Oklahoma, majoring in early childhood development. An older student at 24, she went to school in the evening. The woman with long and curly reddish-blond hair had a cheery personality and was mature beyond her years. Enough to balance being a mother of a two-year-old Christopher, a college student and a career which would determine her fate in life.”
“On March 27, 1995, she became director of the America’s Kids day care at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. She felt fortunate that she was able to take her son to work with her. On April 19, she also was excited as her husband, Anthony, drove her to work. That afternoon, she was flying to San Francisco for a day care conference.”
“Life seemed to be full of hope for Dana Cooper. Then 9:02 came.”
I talk about other victims and how a terrorist act determined their fate in life, but Dana Cooper is one who relates to them more than anyone else. Most of them also are older students who are working at a job, sometimes two or three, to pay their way through college. A few come to class after working the early-morning shifts.
Dana Cooper is reminder to all of us of the promise that we lost more than 25 years ago. She stands out to me as the reason I tell journalists and future journalists the importance of sensitive coverage, even on major anniversaries many years later.
She and the other victims of the Oklahoma City bombing caused me to devote my life to changing how journalists will approach and cover these types of tragedies and compelled me to help lead the founding of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma.
I remind my students the pain never goes away for the family members who lost loved ones to tragedy. That closure never comes, even though we in the media push for it.
As the final minutes tick away on “Victims and the Media Week,” I end by giving the students words expressed by Diane Leonard, who lost her husband, Secret Service agent Donald Leonard, in the bombing. They are words that everyone who experienced the Oklahoma City bombing will always live by, especially those who lost loved ones, as Diane did:
“This will be a journey we’ll be taking for the rest of our lives. … . It’s a part of us, and always will be.”
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