The Public Eye Chat With…Sharyn Alfonsi

It's Thursday, and that means it's time for the Public Eye Chat. This week's subject is CBS News correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi, who spent a week in Blacksburg covering the Virginia Tech tragedy. You can read excerpts, and listen to the full interview, below.

to listen to the interview.
Brian Montopoli: How would you characterize the students' attitude towards the press corps? Did they want to talk to you?

Sharyn Alfonsi: At first, they definitely did. People wanted to tell their stories of what they saw, or what they heard, or how long it took before they were notified that there was a problem. I would definitely say that as time went on, they became more wary of the press.

We actually tried to step back as much as we could in the latter days. There's so many reporters there, so many camera crews there, that even if people were being respectful and cautious, just the sheer number – it was overwhelming to that student population.

Brian Montopoli: There is a lot of talk about objectivity in journalism, and after Katrina there was a lot of discussion about whether reporters should be showing emotion and being advocates. When you were talking to these students, did you feel you were there to be objective? Is it OK to show emotion? Is it OK to feel like you're an advocate?

Sharyn Alfonsi: I think you tried not to show emotion, but I think it's impossible not to. Especially in that situation. Who couldn't relate to that moment? Who couldn't relate to these kids and what they have gone through? Anybody who's been on a campus and felt safe in their little nest at college can understand what it must be like for them.

The other thing for me is I grew up in Northern Virginia. So, for me, Virginia Tech – we always referred to it as the 13th grade. That's where so many of my friends went to school. So when I was on that campus – you can't help but think of those things. And you can't help but think about these kids, they grew up in your hometown. Some of the victims went to school in my district. And you relate to them. You make those connections with them.

You obviously try to be objective. But I don't think it hurts reporting in this particular case to be sympathetic to them, and to be understanding to them. Because, you know, they did nothing. They were just there. They were just witnesses.

Brian Montopoli: Obviously, you have never covered anything quite like this before. But have you ever dealt with a tragedy that was quite as emotional as this in your career?

Sharyn Alfonsi: I have. I covered, very early on in my career, the Oklahoma City bombing, and then later Columbine.

Brian Montopoli: Did you learn anything? Can you draw any comparisons? Are there any similarities between these sorts of stories?

Sharyn Alfonsi: As far as how to cover them?

Brian Montopoli: And the way people to respond to them. Just want you've learned from covering them.

Sharyn Alfonsi: You know what? Every one is so unique and so different. I don't think, even having covered those major news events, having covered 9/11, nothing prepares you for this. You don't become more accustomed to it. You don't become more comfortable with it. Because it's uncomfortable. And I think it should be uncomfortable. If it's comfortable, we've got a problem. If we expect this, we've got a problem.

I think the thing you end up doing is you end up kind of putting your head down and really just trying to stay focused on the story. And when you take that moment later and you try and reflect on it, it hits you. It really does hit you. And I know that after Columbine, I know that after 9/11, that there is this time that you start to process what you've seen, you start to think about the people you've talked to. Even now, being back in New York, there's a couple of students that we talked to that you want to reach out to, just to see how they're doing. You feel like you leave a lot of those ends untied. I think that's the hardest part.

Brian Montopoli: You did that piece – I think it was your last piece from there with the student who was in the classroom, whose arm had been shot. That student struck me as someone who I would have – is he one of the students who you want to reach out to?

Sharyn Alfonsi: He is one of the students who you absolutely want to reach out to. Derek O'Dell. He was in his German class and was shot, and after Seung-Hui Cho left his classroom, he went to the door with his classmates and they barricaded themselves in. And he's got a bullet wound, so he's got a belt tied around his arm to stop the bleeding. And he's calling 911, and he's barricading the door, and the gunman is still shooting through the door, like a foot away from them.

Brian Montopoli: It's just unbelievable.

Sharyn Alfonsi: It's unbelievable. And, I mean, talk about courage. I think most of us would run in the other direction. And these students ran towards the door to help their classmates. And that day, when we were following him back to class, he wanted us to be there. He wanted people to see him going back to class. It was very important to him to show that they were going to be defiant, that they were going to keep going.

And all that being said, it's silly to say "getting back to normal," because it's not back to normal for him. And he seemed to me, on Monday, to be in shock still. I was talking to him, I thought, "I don't know. I don't know. I hope he's OK." He's stronger than I'll ever be. But you just hope he's OK. And he has great parents – we met his parents, they were fantastic, and they were inspiring in a lot of ways. But you just hope that he's going to be OK. You hope that time is going to help him heal. But it was still very, very raw. I mean, it was only a week ago, and he's going back to those classes.