by Mark McGowan
For Allen May, general manager of broadcast news at the Northern Television Center, one of his missions in teaching is to impress on communications students the difference between academic theories and real life situations.
Since Feb. 14, that job has become both profoundly easier and immeasurably harder.
“What I try to do every day is reach them and explain to them that news is not something that’s an obscure classroom exercise. Events that are important enough to talk about are events that deeply affect our lives,” May said. “No words I could have ever spoken in a classroom could ever have come close to capturing the essence of this to them.”
Phones rang off the hook at the Northern Television Center, located near the Barsema Alumni and Visitors Center, shortly after the attacks.
Television news organizations from around the country, including the networks, were calling in search of information and video. NTC video, the first obtained from the scene, was transmitted to all the major companies.
“We had the very first pictures of all of the horrible events of that day,” May said, “partly because, just as a matter of circumstance, we had a student who was working on an unrelated story, walking across campus with the video camera assigned to him. When he saw students running, he stopped to try to assess what was going on. As emergency responders arrived, he just started videotaping.”
Students who remained at the broadcast center to answer the non-stop phones and to monitor the busy police and fire scanner traffic quickly understood that “the magnitude of all of these terrible events reached the entire world.”
At least three TV crews, including Fox Chicago and the ABC and NBC affiliates in Milwaukee, borrowed parts of the NIU station for temporary bases of operations.
And like their counterparts at the Northern Star, May’s students worked on their own newsgathering while providing interviews to professional journalists. One student appeared on Larry King’s CNN show. Another spoke with CBS anchor Katie Couric. A third gave comments to ABC’s Good Morning America.
The students realized well the importance of telling the story, he said, working until midnight the day of the violence.
“Friday, when we normally do not have a scheduled newscast, when the campus had been closed, I came in at 9 in the morning. A dozen students were waiting for me at the door,” May said. “When I said, ‘What are you doing here? Campus is closed,’ they said, in so many words, ‘We are not leaving. We have to put on a special newscast today, and we’re not leaving until we can.’ And they did that.”
Of all the “unprecedented, eye-opening and soul-changing” lessons the students learned, May said, is that this might prove the “biggest story in magnitude and impact they will ever cover.”
“They understood that the level of excellence they need to apply – the professionalism they needed to apply in terms of accuracy, in terms of fairness, in terms of sensitivity – is about as broad and as powerful as they’ll ever be challenged with,” May said.
“The other thing they learned is that it’s difficult as a journalist to try to communicate all of the news elements when the journalist isn’t personally affected by the story. Their goal, then, is to understand events from the perspective, and in the shoes, of the people who are part of those events,” he added. “Here, what they had to learn was that at the same time they themselves were so personally affected and emotionally affected by this, they had to develop a means of coping with the two roles they played.”
And they did an incredible job, said May, whose professional career in Chicago, Milwaukee and Toledo included covering Jeffrey Dahmer, the crash of a commercial jet airliner and “everything in between.”
“I know it sounds a little overstated,” May said, “but they reacted with the best journalists I’ve ever worked with, professionally or otherwise.”
The tragedy also brought May to a new point in his career.
One of the students in that Cole Hall auditorium was his; fortunately, she escaped without injury. She reunited with her professor Thursday, Feb. 21, at the moments of silence in the Martin Luther King Memorial Commons.
“She came up to me, put her arms around me and started sobbing,” May said. “This is one of those singularly overwhelming experiences when, in this case, a student breaks down in tears. I’m no longer a journalist. I’m no longer an instructor or a teacher.”