Covering a Campus Tragedy

GW lost one of its own in terrifying fashion last month.

Sophomore Jonathan Rizzo was attacked and stripped of his life after stopping by the side of the road to help a man who turned out to be a carjacker on a killing spree.

Faced with the loss of a member of our community, the student staff of The Hatchet has set out to cover this important story delicately and thoroughly. You will find pictures of Jonathan in this issue, along with coverage of what happened and who he was.

Questions about media coverage commonly arise when tragedies happen on or campus. Why are photos important? What purpose is served by highlighting gruesome acts that are sure to upset many in our community? Is it necessary for a student paper to seek out comment from family and friends of someone who has passed away?

For The Hatchet to fulfill its mission – to serve as a campus forum providing a dialogue for students to discuss issues important to them – we must cover topics that affect our campus. To do this, we must exercise judgement in how and how much we cover these difficult and sometimes painful issues.

As news of this tragedy broke, Hatchet reporters contacted Jonathan’s friends without getting comment for the paper. Initial stories were compiled from other newspaper reports in the Boston area. While getting information to our readers is a priority, we believed allowing members of our community distance and respect to deal with a difficult loss was equally important.

After the great outpouring of emotion that occurred at Jonathan’s funeral, some students volunteered to talk about their lost friend. Others internalized their memories and preferred not to speak to The Hatchet.

I want to thank the students who spoke out for informing the GW community about a person who touched so many lives.

I contacted Jonathan’s father, Michael Rizzo, and he spoke candidly about his son. His message was simple: learn from Jonathan’s values and continue his mission to make the world a better place. While asking questions of a father still dealing with his loss was difficult, the message that came out of the conversation is important.

Our staff also decided to run two photos of Jonathan – the cover photo that depicts him in an element he loved and an inside photo shows him with people who loved him. While pictures of this young man are sure to draw both painful emotions and happy memories from those who knew Jonathan, our staff felt it was important for Jonathan’s community to remember him as more than words on a page.

The University released a statement August 1 with touching words about a student who will surely be missed. At the end is a note that reads:

“The University respectfully requests that news media covering this story will allow members of the GW community to mourn privately the loss of Jonathan Rizzo.”

The note cites the wishes of Jonathan Rizzo’s family as a reason for the request.

We hope that we have respected the wishes of this young man’s family while staying true to our 98-year-old mission to serve students with the information that shapes our lives.

The GW community cannot fully mourn privately unless we are mourning together.

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