Panel discusses Pan Am media coverage, 25 years later

This year's Remembrance Scholars held a five-person panel in which scholars, professors and local reporters reflected on reporting of Pan Am Flight 103 Thursday night for a packed Watson Theater.

Photographers and reporters flashed cameras and stuck voice recorders in the faces of sobbing students at Hendricks Chapel. It was just hours after news broke 25 years ago that Pan Am flight 103 had exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 – including 35 students returning from SU's study abroad program. Members of the media were just beginning to descend on the campus.

“Some journalists were behaving compassionately, some not so much,” recalls SU professor Joan Deppa of the December 21, 1988 scene. “Students trying to come up the chapel steps were being faced with television lights.”

As part of Remembrance Week, the 2013-14 Remembrance Scholars held a five-person panel, “25 Years Later: Reflecting on Pan Am 103 and the Media,” Thursday night for a packed Watson Theater.

The panel featured three Post-Standard reporters –- Steve Carlic, Tom Foster, and Sean Kirst -– as well as Newhouse professor Melissa Chessher, who reported on the town of Lockerbie 14 years after the bombing, and Newhouse professor Joan Deppa, who published a book on the media's coverage of the event.

“There was a lot of controversy over the media coverage at SU,” said Remembrance Scholar Molly Linhorst, also organizer of the panel. “And since we're thinking of acting forward, we want to learn from this tragedy and what we can take away from this.”

The discussion began with each panelist explaining his or her relationship to the Pan Am coverage. Carlic was one of the first foreign reporters on the scene, the highway still smelling of kerosene when he arrived. Foster was one of the only journalists allowed onto Syracuse's London campus, where the only students remaining were those who had chosen to take a later flight.

Panelists spoke about the atrocities they saw in compassionless journalism, and warned students to always remain ethical, even if that meant not getting the story first.

“If I had pounded on doors, I would've gotten turned away,” said Foster, referring to aggressive journalists who would knock on the doors of grieving families.

Deppa also noted that those who were less aggressive got better stories and material. “Stories like that are so powerful that if you just shut up and listen, you'll learn a lot,” she said.

Chessher and Kirst, who became involved with reporting on the bombing years after the initial event, both spent considerable time in Lockerbie, and told their stories of the generosity they received from the town's people.

“I think that because I was from Syracuse, it showed them I wasn't just passing through,” said Chessher, who spoke about how humbled she was by the town's protectiveness of family members that still visit the site.

For freshman Julia Olteanu, the idea of compassion was her biggest takeaway of the panel. “The panelists' experiences show that you can't just barge in and expect people to open up,” she said after the event. “But it was interesting to hear the stories of conflict in reporting on such a fragile case.”

Remembrance Scholar Bradley Slavin thought the event was a success.

“Remembrance Week has two parts: the first part is to make sure the students' memories stay alive. The second is to inspire,” he said. “This was another great event, and I'm so proud of all the Scholars.”

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