Monday, May 20, 2024

COLUMN: There’s no book on how to be editor-in-chief during a mass shooting

February 24, 2023
Candles, flowers and letters fill the base of the Spartan Statue on Feb. 19, 2023, acting as a memorial for Brian Fraser, Alexandria Verner and Arielle Anderson who lost their lives in a mass shooting at Michigan State University on Feb. 13.
Candles, flowers and letters fill the base of the Spartan Statue on Feb. 19, 2023, acting as a memorial for Brian Fraser, Alexandria Verner and Arielle Anderson who lost their lives in a mass shooting at Michigan State University on Feb. 13.

When the shelter-in-place order was lifted early Tuesday morning following the Feb. 13 mass shooting, the first thing I said to our State News adviser was, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do now.”

My adviser, who has been in this industry for 30 years and has been through a mass shooting before, replied, "We'll figure it out."

I was numb. I wanted to hide under my covers and try to process what had just happened. Three of my Spartan peers were dead. Five more were hospitalized in critical condition. My entire foundation of safety at Michigan State University was gone.

But I couldn’t hide. Over 70 student journalists and countless State News followers were looking to me for what to do next.

As editor-in-chief of The State News, I pride myself on always knowing what to do. A reporter is overwhelmed? Reduce their quota so they can get back on their feet. Two editors are arguing with each other? Sit them down for a conversation, then come up with a compromise.

But standing in that newsroom with our staff that had just reported on perhaps the scariest night of their lives, their eyes hollow and their expressions blank, I was stumbling to find answers to all their problems.

What did it say about me as their editor-in-chief if I couldn’t fix this?

But there were no answers. I could not give them their sense of security back. I could not fix this. And since I earned this position in May 2022, that was the scariest realization I came to.

I recognize that very few people will have to lead a newsroom and relatively fewer people will lead a newsroom during a mass shooting event. But the latter category is slowly growing as mass shootings become more common in my generation.

But outside of journalism, MSU student leaders were given the unique task of pulling their team or organization or group through this unthinkable tragedy. There are resident assistants, student organization presidents, fraternity and sorority leaders and leaders without official titles within our student community.

It goes something like this: You have to process your grief while making important decisions because no one will make them for you. I’ll say it; that leadership can be a lonely feeling.

So, how do you effectively lead a newsroom through an event like Feb. 13?

You don’t. At least not effectively.

I’ve made mistakes in the past two weeks, some minor and some major. I chose to use the police scanner to guide our coverage that Monday night to protect my peers first. The worst that happened from that misinformation? Those students saw our tweets and barricaded in their dorms. 

I chose to have editors write articles that night, adding to their heavy workload. Despite the inherent danger, I chose to have reporters on-scene who were willing. I chose what we covered and what we didn’t. 

And many of those decisions were made with nothing more than a gut feeling.

Let’s be clear. I’m still scared. Since Feb. 13, I’ve been despondent, I’ve been energetic, I’ve been numb and depressed and proud, and every emotion in between.

But I have a job to do. I love The State News. I love the staff. When everything in my head became uncertain and scary, I leaned into the place where I’d always felt safe.

The State News will be there through this dark time. We will continue to bring up-to-date news to the students of MSU. And I will continue to lead that coverage.

There’s no book on how to be editor-in-chief during a mass shooting at your university. 

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There’s also no book on how to be a student government president, a professor, or a dining hall worker. Nor on how to be a student, a university president, a founder of a student organization, a resident assistant, an undergraduate learning assistant or any of the various roles you may find yourself in right now.

But that doesn’t make it impossible. It just means you must breathe, look around and get to work, in whatever capacity that means for you right now.

I believe in this university. I believe in my staff at The State News. Without their emotional support, their hard work and our shared love for The State News and Michigan State University, my job as editor-in-chief would have been impossible.

To my fellow students, I applaud your strength. I know we have a long road of healing to go. And you know what? We will move forward one day at a time.

But if I’ve learned anything since last Monday, it’s that I will never always know what to do. Not as editor-in-chief, not as an MSU student, and definitely not as just SaMya.

And sometimes, that’s OK.

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