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From the Man Issue (Feb 2000):

Media Circus
Reporting From the Midst of the Frenzy on 114th
Edward Ehrbar

On Saturday, February 5, the spectacle of a media circus visited Columbia as members of the press corps amassed themselves outside Ruggles Hall and inside the 181st Street subway station to cover the stories of Kathleen Roskot's murder and Thomas Nelford's suicide. By the time the news of the tragedy had crept its way across Morningside Heights, every news organization in the city had representatives staking out Ruggles Hall. In covering the story, the media showed perfectly exactly how out of hand these situations can become and how insensitive the press can be when going after a story.

The body of the victim was discovered shortly after two in the afternoon, and by four o'clock, the press corps had blockaded 508 West 114th Street. Cameramen snapped photographs and recorded footage of the exterior of the building as reporters questioned passing students and phoned in updates. Meanwhile, police busied themselves with securing the building and outlining a barrier of yellow tape. The medical examiner came and went, and the chief inspector repeatedly postponed his official statement to the press. Residents of Ruggles Hall were the only students allowed admittance, though even they encountered some difficulty in entering the building.

The media on the scene seemed to be interested most in getting quotes from students, ideally those that had known the victim. Most students at the scene reacted negatively to this and would not speak to the press. As this went on, the reporters tried more intrusive tactics in their attempt to get student comments on record. "Reporters keep calling from newspapers. I don't know how they're getting the number," said Sharon Walton, a resident of Ruggles Hall and neighbor of Ms. Roskot. Some residents of Ruggles Hall told of reporters calling and misrepresenting themselves as graduate students or friends of the deceased.

Several media representatives were occupied heavily with the unsavory task of acquiring photographs of the victim and the suspect, mostly to limited success. Every few minutes throughout the chilly late afternoon, another reporter could be heard questioning the availability of a yearbook or face book, anything with an image of Roskot's face. As each of their searches yielded negative results, the members of the press seemed to only get more desperate. One reporter even went so far as to offer members of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity a case of beer in exchange for a photograph of Nelford, who had stayed in the house for a time. The reporter's and the fraternity's accounts of what occurred next conflict with each other, but both end with fraternity brothers pelting the reporter with anything that was not nailed down.

The most outstanding example that day of the over-zealous nature of the press occurred not on Columbia's campus, but in Bay Shore, Long Island. Reporters were quick to act when information about the incident was released. They were so expedient, in fact, that representatives from New York Newsday arrived at the home of Ms. Roskot's parents before the police, making the reporters the bearers of the tragic news. Because of this, the family of Ms. Roskot would not speak to any media representatives.

At the same time, members of the press were venturing to the 181st Street station of the 1 and 9 subway lines, where Nelford had thrown himself in front of a train. The news of Tom Nelford's death did not travel as quickly as Roskot's, and by the time most media representatives arrived on the scene, all they found were a few forensics officers clearing up the scene. To make up for this, media representatives resorted to creative tactics. As a downtown train approached the station, a CBS cameraman focused on the platform, then swooped down as the train crossed his field of vision, following the path he assumed Mr. Nelford's body had taken hours earlier. In explaining this tactic, the cameraman said simply "you have to do whatever you can to make these things dramatic." He also discussed past camera tactics that were no longer in practice: "It's too bad they don't let us attach the camera to a bungee cord and drop it just before the train passes. That always gets a reaction." Accounts of the subway incident range from grizzly to inventive. One paper went to such explicit lengths as to include a full description of exactly how Nelford's body had been disfigured by the train. Others, including our own Spectator, took a more creative method, trying to recreate the scene and assume what had been going through Nelford's mind before he jumped. As much as readers enjoy a bit of drama, it is important to acknowledge the fact that no one will ever no what Nelford was thinking, let alone whether or not he even saw the oft-mentioned graffiti.

The factor that made this 'media circus' unusually interesting was the on-scene presence of Columbia's own Daily Spectator. Several staff members were in attendance, and could usually be seen huddled together in hushed conference. Most members of the professional media who took note of this found the Spectator staff's behavior unsettling, while others were noticeably angered. Erika Martinez, a reporter for the New York Post, remarked that the student reporters seemed "like a freakish cult. Who do these arrogant pricks think they are?"

When questioned as to what about the Spectator staff's behavior was most alarming, the reporters became flustered. The main complaints were that the student news people were "strong-arming" the rest of the media, as Ms. Martinez put it. The professionals on the scene felt that the Spectator staff was behaving as if the story of Ms. Roskot's murder were theirs alone. The attitude perceived was that, since the incident occurred on their turf, the Spectator was entitled to ownership of it. The student reporters continually chose to withhold information from the rest of the press, and could usually be seen glaring accusingly at their professional counterparts. The Spectator staff appeared annoyed at the presence of the media, going so far as to make derogatory comments about the reporters on the scene. The Spectator seemed upset with the fact that the story was receiving so much media attention, yet at the same time saw nothing wrong with devoting an entire issue of their newspaper to it.

In the midst of the press barricade outside Ruggles, a shouting match ensued between a correspondent for CBS television and members of the Spectator staff. The argument became so heated, in fact, that the reporter finally had to remove himself from the vicinity, shouting, "show a little professional courtesy. You don't treat people like this." It was unclear exactly what the altercation was in relation to, but the term 'strong-arming' was heard again. The only comment the CBS correspondent would make was that the student reporters were beyond uncooperative and that they had "a lot to learn about the news business." After this incident, the Spectator staff resumed their huddle.Some time after nine o'clock at night, the inevitable happened: the body of Ms. Roskot was removed from Ruggles Hall. The police carrying the body stumbled down the steps into a blinding haze from floodlights attached to the news cameras. As the unsettling event was documented, a small crowd looked on. After the coroner's van had been loaded, a reporter approached some of the student onlookers, who promptly told her to "get a life." The reporter shouted back that she was merely doing her job, adding, "you're the ones watching your friend's corpse, and you're telling me to get a life?" The students kept walking, avoiding what would have been another in a long day of angry confrontations.

In the wake of tragedy, the Columbia community has seen a fine example of the outrageous behavior that has become commonplace in the media. From phone calls at all hours of the night to the presence of reporters and photographers at the mass given in Ms. Roskot's honor, the media has shown how tragedy can put a community at the center of intense attention. However, regardless of how insensitive the press may have seemed, the Columbia community must acknowledge that they do not live behind a wall, separated from the rest of the city. When extraordinary incidents occur here, the media is obligated to report on it for the rest of our community; that is their job. Whether or not they went about doing their job in the most professional or sensitive manner on this occasion is up for debate.

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