During our fieldwork, conducted two years after the shooting, we were able to assess several aspects of the incident’s aftermath for the wider community. One common theme was the necessity of having to deal with the external reputation of Rockdale County and its residents. Virtually everyone resented the portrayal of the area in the mass media. Besides resenting the content of these portrayals, many people who had direct contact with reporters, especially the victims but many others as well, felt violated by the way journalistic practices in the wake of a hot story invaded their privacy.
This media resentment, however, was shaped more by the public television documentary on the teenage syphilis outbreak than by the shooting incident. It was easier to rationalize T.J.’s actions as those of a lone “mental case” than to deal with external perceptions of local youth related to the syphilis outbreak, but the combination of the two created a special burden.
The young people interviewed for this study said they were embarrassed to say where they came from when they met peers from outside the county. One reported having players on opposing football teams refuse to shake his hand. Others said they planned to keep a low profile until they got to college.
Local adults were more diverse and measured in their reactions. One person felt the area had been “raped” by the media. Another reported that when he talked to people outside the county, he actually got supportive feedback, to the effect that these incidents could have happened in “Anywhere, U.S.A.”
A few people, including some who had worked with the documentary filmmakers and also some public officials responsible for services in the county, thought the spotlight on these problems was at the same time painful but important. From their perspective, real problems did exist and needed to be confronted. They shared the “Anywhere, U.S.A.” perspective and the feeling that Rockdale County was being unduly targeted for attention about problems found in many other places. At the same time, they expressed hope that the attention could lead to needed changes.
Another reaction was avoidance. One person referred to a cultural norm among middle-class Southerners that discourages discussing unpleasant things in polite company. Others expressed milder versions of this perspective, saying that there was not so much avoidance as a desire to move on.
Across the community, as among the victims, there was a wide range of attitudes towards T.J., both in terms of basic emotions and in terms of how he should be and was being dealt with by the criminal justice system.