Letter from the Editor: On the insensitive coverage of campus tragedies

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Photo: Jakob Menendez

The Little Building residence hall.

By Mariyam Quaisar, Editor-at-large

The Berkeley Beacon failed you on Friday when we hastily published a story about the passing of Brooks Walker without consideration and proper context. Our actions are inexcusable—not only because of the insensitive headline we published, but also our premature disclosure of such deeply upsetting news to the community.

Our role may be to report on campus news, but it wasn’t, isn’t, and never will be our place to turn a tragedy into an unnecessary news brief. In doing so, we dehumanized a beloved son, brother, grandson, peer, and member of the Emerson community. 

We are sorry—but an apology is not enough. It is not enough for the Beacon to merely show remorse for the way we reacted to a tragedy that has caused so much hurt to our community. As an organization, we will take unified steps to become a more empathetic, accessible, and collaborative organization. 

In an effort to be transparent, we want to share the thoughts that went through the heads of our editorial team and why they were wrong. When we received alerts of police activity on campus that Friday morning, the Beacon immediately reached out to the Boston Police Department and Emerson College Police. From these officials, we were given preliminary information about the investigation, while we simultaneously received updates from Boston Globe writers. As reports of the situation began to spread on campus, the Beacon rashly posted a tweet and published a story with the initial facts, but these featured insensitive and disrespectful language. We chose not to take them down for the sake of accountability, but they were edited with disclaimers. 

While at the time we were unaware that it was in regards to a member of our community, the Beacon should not have reported on the tragedy. We should have waited for the administration to provide students with information before reacting.  

We neglected to act in solidarity with our community. We called the Boston Police Department and drafted details without considering the impact the tragedy imposed on our community. The Beacon should have recognized our responsibility to empathetically inform, rather than spreading panic to the members of our community with a story that was not ours to share in the first place.  

In the coming months, the Beacon will reevaluate our role on campus. We are not The Boston Globe or The New York Times, and should not assume we are. We are a student-run organization that must prioritize the wellbeing of our community before anything else. We are not the Beacon without the support of the student body—the community we are here to serve and work alongside to facilitate change. In an effort to mirror the coverage of major news outlets—that often don’t prioritize smaller communities such as ours—we brought significant harm to our peers and leaders. We blindly relied on professional and editorial precedent to justify our actions, when in reality there is nothing that can justify our actions. 

The journalism industry’s tendency to dehumanize victims of tragedies is unacceptable. As the next generation of journalists entering the world of media, it is our responsibility to change that mindset on reporting—to alter this way of thinking rather than conform to it. 

As editor-in-chief of The Berkeley Beacon, I take responsibility for the harm we caused to our community when it was already hurting. I apologize for treating the passing of Brooks Walker as just another news story. The Beacon has been a pillar of strength in my life since I started at Emerson, but right now I fail to see it as that. Instead, I see it as an organization with flaws—flaws that I hope to change not only with the help of my staff, but also with the help of community feedback. We will work our hardest to gain the trust of the community we claim to serve and become a student organization that the community can rely on in times of triumph and grief alike.

We plan to repair our relationship with the community by hosting town hall meetings, in which the student body can express their concerns and grievances with the Beacon. In addition, there is a feedback form on our Twitter profile. We believe it is crucial that the community hold the Beacon accountable so it can continue to evolve. 

Apart from just taking responsibility for this reckless reporting, The Beacon hopes to educate ourselves on empathetic journalism. We plan to host an ethics workshop with grassroots journalists before the end of this semester to discuss ways to challenge the norm of insensitive coverage. Furthermore, we will put together a DEI and Ethics committee made up of members of our organization that are outside the editorial board to ensure we are upholding the values of compassionate, enlightened journalists. We ultimately promise to change the process of our breaking news cycle to ensure we inform with empathy, not urgency. 

Over the past two and a half years, I have watched the Beacon grow as an organization, only to fall flat again when we forget how our words impact others when we fail to put empathy first. In a misguided effort to maintain professionalism, we failed to remember our role in this community. I—along with every member of our staff—apologize for every part of this mistake.

We are deeply sorry to anyone who knew and loved Brooks for our irresponsible coverage. Above all, we are sorry to Brooks for failing his legacy and diminishing his life and dignity.