Telling Newtown’s story sensitively

I hope you can see the picture here. If you can’t, please click here for a larger image. I saw it on Adam Gabbatt’s Twitter feed on Dec. 15. He’s a reporter for The Guardian. He added:

Now at special service at St John’s church in Sandy Hook. Bunch of over-zealous photographers were just asked to leave

You don’t say! I can not imagine what it would be like to be trying to worship in peace at a time of such horrific tragedy while a half dozen cameras were pointed straight at my face. I can’t imagine being a video or photo journalist and thinking such behavior is appropriate.

I have some questions on this, but first will mention I’ve had a great deal of difficulty writing about the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy. I think it must be very difficult to be a reporter covering this story. I want to be humble about the challenges they face while having a discussion about how the media have performed on this story.

It’s also true that I can’t remember a story where almost every detail initially reported turned out to be wrong. Throughout Friday and Saturday, I was reading stories that directly contradicted each other. The mother of the shooter was a kindergarten teacher, then a 1st grade teacher, then, no, she was just a teacher’s aide. Someone was quoted saying she had never worked at the school. Someone else was quoted saying she was wonderful to work with there. I found the whole enterprise incredibly frustrating even in a world where we know early reports on tragedies are problematic.

To that end, I rather enjoyed this New York Times story about the town’s invasion by media figures. It mentioned the many problems with the early reports.

And then there were the reporters interviewing children. They were asking grieving parents “How do you feel?” The whole enterprise was unseemly. Of course, a few bad microphones can spoil the whole vocation.

The New York Times looked at this. From the beginning of the story:

NEWTOWN, Conn. — Wolf Blitzer understands that his presence here is not appreciated by some local people, who wish that the TV satellite trucks, and the reporters who have taken over the local Starbucks, would go away and leave them to ache, grieve and mourn in peace.

But he also knows that the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School ranks with the national tragedies he has covered: Oklahoma City, Sept. 11, Virginia Tech. So for now the most intimate and heartbreaking of catastrophes and the insatiable, unwieldy beast of global news media are locked in an awkward union in a bucolic New England town that never expected to encounter either.

Mr. Blitzer, the longtime CNN anchor, said the few exhortations to go home he had heard while working here had been far outnumbered by comments from people who thank him for telling Newtown’s story sensitively and who want the world to know what happened here. Still, he said, Newtown is providing a particularly vivid laboratory of how the media report this kind of tragedy.

“If you have people bringing dolls or flowers to makeshift memorials and they’re crying, that’s a powerful image, it’s part of this story, it’s part of our history right now, and we have to deal with it,” he said on Sunday.

This town, of course, has been transformed by unimaginable tragedy. But in a more mundane and presumably transitory way, Newtown and particularly the small community of Sandy Hook have also been transformed by those coming to report on it, a news media presence that has clogged quiet roads, established glowing encampments of lights and cameras, and showed up in force at church services and public memorials.

I think the line above about “telling Newtown’s story sensitively” says it best. I don’t much like the descent upon this town or the general frenzied approach to most media coverage. The key, if you’re on this story, is to tell it sensitively, no?

It’s not specific to religion, but you may also be interested in this, where the BBC’s Charlie Booker examines the problems with the way the media hype tragedies. For a different take, the Washington Post‘s Erik Wemple tries to defend the media.

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  • Dave

    Hi, Mollie; I wondered when I’d see GR review coverage of this story, and kind of figured it would be you. This is a terrible moment, to live through or to cover. The best TV coverage I’ve seen consists of mute pictures of closed doors with “NO PRESS” or “NO MEDIA” signs. From the commentary I couldn’t tell if they were private residences or churches in modest settings, since the audio voice-over was talking about religious responses. Major churches in Cleveland had at least a moment of silence Sunday, giving local news a local piece of the story.

  • Jerry

    I liked the way NPR covered the prayer service. They introduced the listening audience to who the speaker was and what religion/denomination he or she represented and then let the speaker have the podium uninterrupted by aside comments. I think that kind of behavior is key for situations like this. Let those who want to say have a platform to express themselves but otherwise don’t be like the proverbial bull in a china shop.

    A media bias is to amplify emotions and conflict. And that is utterly inappropriate especially in situations like this. If people refused to pay attention to over-hyping, advertising dollars would go away and the media would change its tune. So I’m not blaming the media except as it a reflection of current American culture.

  • Bobby Ross Jr.

    When the Oklahoma City bombing happened in 1995, I was working the The Oklahoman and got my first taste of the national media swarm on a story like this. I still remember one mother of a baby who died in the bombing. I left a phone message and told her I’d love to interview her but did not pressure her. A few weeks later, she called and said she was ready to talk, her first interview. She expressed how much she appreciated the way I (representing the local paper) approached her. The national media, on the other hand, harassed her and showed up uninvited to her baby’s funeral, she complained.

    Later, I worked at The Associated Press and was dispatched to all sorts of tragedies, where the pressure was immense (from editors in my state and in New York) to beat other national media to various angles and sources. I tried to bring the same level of sensitivity and ethics to my work with the AP. But there were times when I felt like was intruding.


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