A Reflection: Nicole Lovell, Virginia Tech, and Victim Blaming

In Commentary, Featured by

How the media’s careless spinning of two tragedies affects the victims and our community.
By Andrew Pregnall, Commentary editor Contact the Reporter

An illustration of journalists posing questions to a framed silhouette.

Illustration by Justin Lau.

This past February, Virginia Tech and the surrounding community found itself in a state of tragedy when Nicole Lovell was found dead and two Virginia Tech students were arrested and charged in connection to her murder. As the situation developed in its initial days, the disturbing news hit home and became a central topic of discussion as those who knew either Lovell or the two students charged with her murder were shaken to their core. These reactions were only natural, and Tech worked to support its students by holding informational community meetings and spreading information about resources like Cook Counseling Center and, in the event students had information about the crime, Student Legal Services.

Conversations surrounding Lovell’s death and the arrest of students David Eisenhauer, 18, and Natalie Keepers, 19, quickly spread beyond campus borders when the press and social media picked up the story. Some criticized the values of the Tech community, while others suggested Lovell and her parents shared some blame for the tragedy.

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Many Tech students took to the internet to express their concerns and frustrations with the media’s portrayal of the university; in addition, student groups Womanspace+ and Help Save the Next Girl and the Take Back the Night committee were involved in the planning of a vigil for Lovell on Feb. 8 on College Avenue to remember her life and promote solidarity among the Blacksburg and Tech communities.

However, individuals online and those who work for media outlets at the local, state, and national levels continued to portray Tech, Lovell, and her parents in a negative light. Now, as new details about the case continue to emerge, we should examine the media, its treatment of Lovell and Tech, and online victim blaming.

From the beginning of their coverage, news outlets from the regional to national level made it a point to invoke the April 16 tragedy in their coverage of Lovell’s death as though it were relevant to the story at hand. For example, in an article from the Associated Press, the authors mentioned where David Eisenhauer lived on campus, adding an irrelevant detail about the April 16 tragedy:

“Eisenhauer lived in Ambler Johnston Hall, the same co-ed residence hall where the first two people were killed in the 2007 campus massacre that left 32 dead.”

Similarly, an article written by The New York Times found a way to feature the shooting:

“The murder has stunned this college community, though Virginia Tech, the site of a 2007 massacre that remains the deadliest shooting by a single gunman in the nation’s history, is no stranger to sorrow and tragedy.”

“Tech is not defined by the events of April 16, 2007, just as New York City is not defined by 9/11.”

Certainly as journalists, we all recognize the need for context and pertinent information. But, as Tech students, we see and feel the impact of these constant digressions. Tech will never be able to shake the stigma of the tragedy so long as it is the only way the media contextualizes stories surrounding our community.

If a journalist wishes to frame their story around the university, Tech has plenty of characteristics that could be used to provide background without invoking the April 16 tragedy. For example, journalists could mention Tech’s leading role in uncovering the Flint, Michigan water crisis. While this does not relate to the murder of Lovell and the arrest of Eisenhauer and Natalie Keepers, neither does the April 16 tragedy. Ultimately, Tech is not defined by the events of April 16, 2007, just as New York City is not defined solely by 9/11.

Unfortunately, the suggestion that blame rested beyond the attackers was not limited to of the implicit critique of the community, but also extended to Lovell’s parents and even Lovell herself. Media outlets called into question Lovell’s use of social media as well as her parent’s judgment. Language that implies or outwardly states that a victim is at fault is highly atypical in cases like these; however, Lovell’s behavior on social media was at the forefront of coverage highly critical of the 13-year-old. In the above article by The New York Times, the reporters quoted a Tech professor who commented on Lovell’s use of social media:

“‘My first thought is that this kid was really too young to have been using Facebook,’ said Jenn Burleson Mackay, an associate professor at Virginia Tech who teaches social media use in the Department of Communication. ‘To be looking for boyfriends and dating advice on Facebook at age 13 just seems inappropriate.’”

While the sentiment of Mackay’s statement raised important points regarding young people and social media, the timing and manner in which Mackay made her comments was in poor taste. Social media is a fundamental part of our contemporary culture, particularly for younger generations, so to judge Lovell for her conversations online, especially so soon after her death, seems inappropriate. Mackay was not actively blaming Lovell for her death, but the language we use after a tragic event has broad implications for all parties involved. Just like including the April 16 tragedy in coverage of Tech serves no greater purpose than to connect our university community to violence (intentionally or not), discussion of a victim’s activities after their death serves no greater purpose than to imply that they are at fault for what happened to them. Ultimately, while Mackay’s comments were well-intended, the manner in which they were delivered is ultimately harmful to Lovell, and especially her parents, by placing blame on the victim and suffering family — neither of whom caused this tragedy.

It’s appalling that professional news outlets feel compelled to include commentary about the tragedy of April 16 in their coverage of Lovell, and even more appalling that they publish articles that focus heavily on Lovell’s social media use. Articles like The Washington Post‘s’ “Near Virginia Tech, a 13-year-old’s online fantasies turn fatal,” and The Roanoke Time’s Dadline column, “Parents should know about a few bad apps” further propagate a culture that shifts blame to victims.

In a world where Pew Research Center found that 75% of teenagers have access to a smart phone, 92% of teenagers report going online daily, and 71% of teenagers use more than one social media platform, it can be difficult to protect children online. Parents can take every precaution in the world: they can teach their children about the internet as a resource; they can teach their children how to use the internet and social media; and they can teach their children about all the dangers involved with being online — they certainly should take all of these steps. Proactive methods like the ones mentioned previously are beneficial not only because they help teach a child to navigate a complex world but also because they help build a sense of trust between parent and child.

“Ultimately, the Tech community, Lovell’s parents, and 13-year-old Lovell herself have been unfairly framed in narratives convenient for those who did not live this tragedy.”

In contrast, overly reactive methods like reading a child’s text messages or monitoring all of their online activities do not teach children how to navigate the world, and these actions can erode the trust between parent and child. Parents can implement every method in the world — proactive and reactive alike — and parents can still be put in Tammy Week’s tragic situation because, ultimately, the blame in situations like these falls solely on the perpetrators of the crime.

Ultimately, the Tech community, Lovell’s parents, and 13-year-old Lovell herself have been unfairly framed in narratives convenient for those who did not live this tragedy. But for those of us who grieved and still grieve this loss in our community, we choose to remember Lovell not as a girl portrayed as irresponsible online, but as a daughter, a student, and a community member. A girl who loved Minions and pandas, and a girl whose life was tragically cut short — solely through the actions of her killers.

Story corrects an earlier version that did not mention Womanspace+ as an organizer of the vigil.

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About the Author

Andrew Pregnall

Andrew Pregnall is a native Northern Virginian who ventures down to the ‘Burg every semester to study Microbiology and History. They enjoy talking about social and political issues from around the world, and hope to somehow apply this passion in their future. When they leave Virginia Tech, Andrew hopes to get a puppy and pursue a career in the culture and practice of medicine.