In defense of Newtown reporting

It would be mighty difficult today to find anyone willing to advocate for putting reporters on the ground in Newtown, Connecticut. I certainly don’t quarrel with the town’s plea for journalists to stay away on the anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. But what bothers me about this episode is the implication that journalism equates to exploitation; that victims never deserve or want what journalists do after a tragedy; that if we journalists simply shut up and went away, the healing could begin.

Perhaps it’s inevitable that so many believe this, considering most people get their news in short, frantic bursts from cable and network television. Reporting means big satellite trucks clogging a small town’s streets, microphones shoved in faces, cameras stalking stunned survivors.

Let’s not forget that on-the-ground reporting, instead, can mean a journalist like The New York Times‘ Michael Wilson, who skillfully and sensitively paints this portrait in today’s paper of what it meant to live in Newtown this past year. If he had not walked those streets and talked to those people in quiet moments, out of the glare of the cameras, we would be denied the understanding we get from his gathering and presenting of facts.

There have been countless other examples in the past year, in all media (yes, including television). On Twitter and on this blog, I have attempted to call attention to them as they happened (that’s not all you’ll find in posts under the Newtown tag, but scroll down and you’ll see other memorable examples, such as Lisa Miller’s story in New York magazine, Eli Saslow’s in The Washington Post, a pair of stories by CBS’s Norah O’Donnell, Rachel Aviv’s feature in The New Yorker, and others).

Whenever I hear anyone begin a sentence with “The media ….” I know what’s coming: a generalization, based often on the worst extremes. Don’t forget that quality exists. You just have to look for it. It only can exist when journalists earn the trust of those whose stories they must tell. These stories honor and help the victims and survivors. And they help us all. To understand and learn from what happened, we rely on professionals who will go to the place, talk to the people (often over the course of weeks or months), and tell stories that matter. I’m grateful that some managed to do that well in the past year, and I hope they will continue.

5 thoughts on “In defense of Newtown reporting”

  1. People differ in their process of grief, and respecting their wishes may go against our thinking and beliefs, but I am very glad media respecting Newton families’ wishes.

    I am a native and life-long resident of OK and cannot bear to visit OKC bombing memorial. I have driven past it, but it does not beckon me. My gut reaction is to move away from it quickly.

    Tributes and sensitive reporting while enlighting and soothing for some, are heartbreaking for others just as your reporting on Veronica Brown. I appreciate your recent article on her, but was physically sick and upset after reading it having witnessed via the media the last few months of her life spent with her OK family. Another senseless tragedy forced on a child.

    1. It’s very true, and important to remember, that we humans vary widely over how we grieve and recovery from tragedy. It’s difficult for journalists to know what to do when the nation wants to express its sympathy, and observe the moment, but its eyes and ears — journalists — are asked to stay away. In this case, it made sense and was the humane solution. But it’s scary to think that this could become the norm. My main point, though, was to challenge the underlying sentiment — that journalism = disrespect, upset, and exploitation. Some of it does, much of it doesn’t, and I wanted to remind readers that some journalists who have walked the streets of Newtown and talked to the people there have told stories that help the rest of us understand what happened and help us understand the human experience.

      As for the Veronica story, I am sorry that my story upset you so. I know it’s an emotional issue for all concerned. It’s important when reading that story to remember the intended audience: The American Lawyer’s readers are almost entirely lawyers at large law firms, and so their interest was in seeing what the experience was like for lawyers like themselves. That isn’t the story I would tell if I were trying to explain the issues to a general audience.

      1. Thank you, Mark for your reply, articles and comments. You are very kind, considerate and insightful in all I have read of your writing which I very much appreciate and value. I am very thankful you reported which lawyers worked on behalf of the Capobionco’s and their strategies for I wanted to know whom created legal gauntlet/chaos for Dusten Brown. That truth did hurt, but I do not blame the messenger. I am amazed Dusten dealt so very well with all the legal obstacles thrown at him. I believe his civil rights were violated and those of his daughter. The UN wrote of this case and our own OK Gov involved in this civil turned into criminal case. I watched Capobionco’s, their PR rep, and investigator at their Tulsa news conference, and their words did not match their actions in many many ways. I thought John Grisham should write a book on this adoption gone terribly wrong, but I think your sensitivity and clarity would do it justice. I believe there is still much more to this story.

  2. My problem is with anniversary stories. Almost any good story done on Newtown would have been better done three months ago, or three months hence.

    1. I agree, except I’ve seen a couple of worthwhile recaps that take stock of what we’ve learned and done, or not, in the year since.

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