Friday, 13 March 2009

13 March 2009

The headline in the local paper in the southern German town of Winnenden yesterday morning asked the question for all of us.

Just one word: “Warum?” Why?

Why did a 17-year-old boy go on the rampage, killing as many people as he could, including students and staff at his old school? Why could no one stop him? Why did no one know what he was planning? Why did 15 people have to die? So many questions, but all variations on the same theme. Why?

There are already plenty of theories. He is reported to have written on a social networking website: “What do I like? Nothing. What do I hate? Nothing.”

He is reported to have been obsessed with guns -- his own air guns, which fire pellets, and his father’s extensive collection of real weapons, one of which he stole to go on his killing spree.

A classmate is reported to have said that hadn’t passed his school-leaving exams, that he was no good at school and had become increasingly frustrated.

Last night, there were reports that he had been suffering from depression and had been receiving psychiatric treatment. One of his victims was apparently an employee at the clinic where he was being treated.

(Earlier reports claimed that he had written on a website: “I've had enough, I'm fed up with this horrid life ... People are laughing at me ... I am scared, I have weapons here, and I will go to my former school tomorrow and then I will really do a grilling." But now there are doubts over the authenticity of the message.)

Does any of this answer the question? I fear it doesn’t. I also fear that we might never know, that although our natural instinct is always to search for answers, perhaps we need to be able to accept that sometimes there either is no answer, or there is no answer available.

For us journalists, this is a hard lesson to learn. We were taught when we were babes in arms that our duty is always to find the answers to five basic questions: Who? What? Where? When? Why? If we fail to find the answers, we feel we have failed as journalists.

So our professional instinct is always to search for the answers. And in this era of instant news, 24-hour news channels, the internet and the rest of it, the onus on us is to find them within minutes of an event occurring.

Just as politicians hate saying “Sorry”, or “I got it wrong”, so journalists hate saying “I don’t know.” And a pundit who says “I don’t know” doesn’t get invited back.

Sometimes answers will emerge at a trial, or an inquest. Sometimes police, or an official inquiry, will piece together enough of the story to satisfy our need to know. But often it will be weeks, or even months, after the event before we can be sure of the facts.

Patience has never been much in evidence in newsrooms, and I suspect it’s less in evidence now than ever before. But in my book, patience is still a virtue – and yes, that includes for news consumers as much as for news providers.

Of course, none of this means that we won’t go on trying to find answers. That’s what we’re paid for. But sometimes we just won’t find them instantly.

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