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.