Blog: The Educated Reporter

Lessons From Roseburg: Covering Community Colleges and Campus Violence


With a single tweet, Motoko Rich of The New Times managed to encapsulate one of the most striking aspects of last week’s campus shooting: 

Justin Peters of Slate reviewed the television coverage in the immediate aftermath of the shootings at Umpqua Community College, and noted that CNN’s Brooke Baldwin was also intrigued by the college’s demographics: 

When I tune in, a guest is giving Baldwin some demographic information on the UCC student body: More than half of the student population is female; the average student age is 38. (“Huh,” remarks Baldwin.) “That’s what we’re learning so far: that it’s not your traditional institution, it caters to people who are a little bit older, the majority of them part time,” reports CNN, and this, too, is good work; if you can’t say anything meaningful about the incident itself, you might as well offer some context on the setting in which it occurred.

It’s important to recognize the vital role this small campus played in the rural logging community of Roseburg, where it was the only institution of higher education. As many media outlets have reported, most everyone in town knew someone connected to the campus. Betsy Hammond of the Oregonian smartly answered two key questions for outsiders looking into this small community: Where is Roseburg, Oregon? And what is Umpqua Community College

To be sure, community colleges have long been a haven for non-traditional students, many of whom have been out in “the real world” before opting to seek certification, job retraining, or an associate’s degree. But these institutions are also increasingly a launching point for young people who fully intend to transfer to a four-year college once their academic goals, finances, and schedules are aligned. (For more on two-year institutions, take a look at EWA’s Topics Page for recent coverage, research, and even questions to ask.)

In the wake of the shooting, the inevitable debate over gun lawshas gained renewed attention, as well as the question of whether the tragedy could have been lessened if someone else at the site had been armed. This is a familiar cycle. After the Sandy Hook shootings in 2012, some lawmakers even argued that teachers should be armed in the classroom — though many educators opposed the idea — and a handful of states pushed through legislation to make it legal. 

But while Umpqua is dominating the headlines many other campus shootings have occurred since 20 first graders and six educators were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. The Los Angeles Times’ map puts the tally at 142. While keeping in mind that’s all gun activity — including misfires, suicides, and attempted shootings when a gun was discharged but a bullet didn’t strike a person — that’s still a startling amount of gun activity on school property. 

Among the shootings on the map are ones that received national attention, including a seventh grader in Sparks, Nevada, who shot and killed a teacher, and injured two other students, before killing himself. But there are also less-widely reported incidents, like a shooting after a school event at a Detroit-area high school, which left a 19-year-old dead

There are some valuable resources available to reporters covering campus violence, including the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University. Kelly McBride, the ethicist for the Poynter Institute, has also written recently why naming the perpetrators in mass shootings is the right step for media outlets.

That’s a conversation playing out in many newsrooms right now. For another take, read Mother Jones’ analysis of the “Columbine Effect”, in which researchers contend that overly aggressive media coverage of campus shootings spurred dozens of copycats.