Only You Know How to Define a Tragedy

barry currin, stories of a world gone mad, This column was written before tornadoes struck Southeast Tennessee earlier this week, which is why they are not referenced.)

What is a tragedy?

I have asked myself that question many times since January 28, 1986. That was the day space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds into flight, killing all seven crew members on board.

I’ve referenced this story before, because it marked a turning point in my development as an adult. It forced me to think about things outside my own little world.

I was sitting in a journalism class at The University of Tennessee when the news of the Challenger explosion came over the Associated Press news wire.

As the professor discussed this story and how it should be handled, my mind wandered ahead to my next class which involved me going to the WUTK radio studios and creating a newscast for a broadcast class I was taking.

Every Tuesday and Thursday I would create my newscast script by arranging the stories in order of importance, cutting the fluff and pasting the facts.

Most days it was rote, but that day would be different. That day, I would be breaking the news of the Challenger disaster to everyone listening to the station. I’m not sure how many listeners there were, but even if there was only one, he or she would get my best effort.

I snapped back into the moment and asked the professor something like, “Can this be called a tragedy?”

He looked back at me over his glasses and said, “What are you going to call it when 100 people die?”

So I didn’t call it a tragedy on the radio that day; but I sensed in my gut it was one.

I’ve used that same “tragedy filter” the journalism professor gave me that day many times over the years as I have examined seemingly-tragic news stories. And as I grow older — and see more of it — I realize that tragedy isn’t something someone tells you it is.

Tragedy is not something that can be quantified.

Tragedy is a feeling in your gut.

We’ve had more than our fair share of tragic events in my bone-dry neck of the woods lately.

As you already know, six children from Woodmore Elementary School in Chattanooga lost their lives last week when their bus left the road, flipped on its side and hit a tree. The video footage of devastated parents and loved ones, educators, and members of the Woodmore community is heartbreaking.

Around the same time in my town, two children drowned in a swimming pool and left our community in shock.

Personally, I cannot stop envisioning the empty seats at those Thanksgiving tables. In all actuality, though, they probably weren’t celebrating Thanksgiving in those homes.

Those are tragedies.

As I write this, numerous buildings and countless acres around Gatlinburg in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park continue to burn as wildfires rage out of control. People are missing and feared dead.

One of the pictures in the Knoxville newspaper showed an armageddon-like nighttime Gatlinburg street scene with smoke and ash contrasting with the big light-up plastic snowflake decorations attached to light poles.

We won’t know how big of a tragedy it is until the smoke clears.

But it is one.

Lately, the bad news continues to come seemingly out of nowhere — here at home, nationally, and of course, abroad.

All those situations are someone’s tragedy. Some of them should be all of ours.

I didn’t realize it then, but I now understand the professor wasn’t trying to be insensitive to the Challenger situation. He was trying to get us to put perspective on a news story. Taking it further, he was trying to teach us to deliver the facts and not label stories as tragedies or triumphs.

Maybe that’s a good lesson in journalism fundamentals, but out here in the real world, tragedies are easy to spot.

You feel them in your gut; and, lately we’ve felt plenty.

About Barry Currin

Barry tries to be funny and poignant, and he's usually satisfied when he succeeds with one or the other. (Being both is awesome. And sometimes that happens.) Email him:

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