Sandy Hook Shootings: Trafficking in Tragedy
The dull, low-pitched rumble of news helicopters filled the air at Treadwell Memorial Park in Newtown. Dozens of media trucks jammed the parking lot, TV crews set up cameras, journalists scribbled in notebooks and typed furiously into smart phones and tablets. Bright, almost blinding TV lights focused on a makeshift press podium with so many microphones attached to it that I heard one reporter remark it looked like it was going to fall over. In the space of a few hours, this classic suburban park that is home to ball fields, a playground and a pool had been transformed into an international media center—ground zero for the second deadliest and perhaps most horrific school shooting in U.S. history.
It was late in the afternoon on Friday, Dec. 14; the sun was setting and the temperature falling. Connecticut State Police spokesman Lt. J. Paul Vance was preparing to talk to the press about that morning’s murder of 20 children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School by a 20-year-old gunman who had also killed his mother. Vance was the official voice of the tragic shooting; like Virgil in Dante’s Inferno, he had become our guide to hell.
Over the next three days I was among the media masses that took up residency in Newtown. I would participate in press conferences, attend candlelit vigils, talk with residents and knock on doors in what was perhaps a futile attempt to make sense of the senseless. I grew up and still live 15 minutes from Newtown. As a kid I went to $2 movies at Newtown’s Edmond Town Hall, and my brothers learned bagpipes from the late Newtown piper Tommy Shearer. To me, this quintessential New England small town is not a home away from home, it is home, part of the western corner of Connecticut I call my own. I felt it was my duty as a journalist to help tell this story that had directly affected many of my friends and colleagues.
While in Newtown I met journalists representing publications in England, France and Russia. I bumped into famous news personalities such as Wolf Blitzer, Anderson Cooper and Brian Williams, and I saw the good and bad sides of media coverage. A veteran reporter from a California newspaper, who had been to Iraq and covered school shootings in the past, fought back tears as she told me this was the hardest assignment she’d ever been on. Meanwhile, an insensitive reporter from a local radio station literally chased after a reluctant teenager trying to get a quote about one of the victims.
I also experienced both sides of the reaction to the media from the Newtown community. After leading a candlelit vigil on the evening of the shootings, the Rev. Barry Fredericks, pastor of Grace Family Church, thanked me for writing about the story and told me I was helping people deal with the tragedy. Another man yelled at me to go home when he saw me walking with a pen and notepad in his neighborhood, but through his window I could see he was watching the news on TV.
As I look back on the aftermath of the shootings, I still wonder how to tell the news of a truly national tragedy that needs to be told without adding to the sorrow of those directly affected. I put this question to a colleague, Paul Steinmetz, director of University Relations at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury, former editor of The News-Times, the daily newspaper covering Danbury, Newtown and surrounding towns.
“There isn’t any good way to tell a story like this,” Steinmetz says. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be told, he adds. “I think it’s important because the news business helps the rest of the world attempt to make sense of what is going on. Learning about these kinds of tragedies helps us decide how to live.”
It is this belief that drove me, and I believe the majority of journalists, to Newtown. On that fateful Friday morning before I heard the news, I was heading to Westchester County Airport with my girlfriend. South Florida was our destination, and much to her dismay I had donned my Hawaiian shirt and wide-brimmed Panama hat for the occasion. Halfway to the airport we learned the terrible news of the shootings and the terrifying human toll it had taken. A few moments later, I got an email from an editor I work with at The News-Times asking if I could help; they simply did not have enough people to cover a tragedy of this magnitude. We pulled into a rest stop on Interstate 684 and I called the paper to tell them I was on my way while my girlfriend cancelled our flight. You could see from the people around us that news of the massacre was spreading; a woman sat sobbing in the car next to us. We turned around and headed home.
When I arrived in Newtown in the early afternoon, the media circus was already in full swing. There were traffic jams and news trucks from major networks zigzagging and making U-turns as they came upon closed streets.
“I’ve been in this end of law enforcement for over 10 years and it’s the largest gathering of media that I have ever seen,” Lt. Vance tells me a month later. Yet, he adds, the amount of coverage did not change the nature of his job.
“Whether you have five microphones or 500, it doesn’t matter; the approach has got to be the same,” he explains. “We wanted to make sure the victims’ families were the first to be notified, that they weren’t listening to a radio or watching a television or reading an online newspaper to get the information.
“The families had asked to be left alone and 99.9 percent of the media respected that and did not bother the families at their homes or otherwise, and that was important, but there’s always a couple of people that don’t get the message or didn’t care what the request was and attempted to get photographs and things such as that. For the most part—and I can’t stress this enough—the press was tremendous, they truly were.”
Indeed, Vance says the press can play an important role in squashing rumors and easing fears. “Initially, people were wondering if we were looking for an individual who was on the run, and being able to stand up and go, ‘No, there is no one else involved, there is nobody else that we’re searching for’—that puts people’s minds at ease and that truly is an important part of the partnership between the press and the police.”
Still, even if they behaved professionally, the media coverage eventually became overwhelming, says Steinmetz.
“Generally, the media did a good job—the problem was just the sheer amount of coverage was obsessive,” he says. “The event warranted that amount of coverage, because of the magnitude of the disaster, but there’s just this line and I don’t think anyone knows exactly where it is. How long do you stay there? What aspects do you cover of it? And how do you make it make sense without being offensive? It’s very difficult.”
Not everyone agrees about the professionalism of the press covering the tragedy. Many in Newtown and elsewhere expressed shock that the children who had been inside Sandy Hook Elementary School were interviewed about what they saw and heard just moments after surviving the massacre. Others grew angry with the media’s constant presence as time wore on and railed against the press on social media sites; one friend of mine from Newtown posted on Facebook on Dec. 19 that it was time for the press to leave.
Suzanne Davenport who lives less than a mile from Sandy Hook Elementary says, “I understand this is just their job, and I know this was one of the most horrific events to happen anywhere, so it was major news. But after a week it really was time [for the press] to leave and let our community try to come to terms with all of this.”
Kelly McBride, who directs an ethics program for the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank in St. Petersburg, Fla., says it isn’t surprising there was a backlash. “Whenever you have a big news story in a small location like that, you tend to have a large group of media descend, and as a pack journalists can be pretty disruptive,” she says. “You saw that in Waco, Texas, you saw that in Ruby Ridge.”
She notes that these factors were compounded by Newtown’s close proximity to New York City—which added to the number of journalists in town—and the trickle of new information that emerged about the tragedy.
Despite some of the complaints, McBride says, “I would bet you that the bulk of the interactions were respectful and courteous. But of course you judge people by their loudest and worst behaviors, and the entire group will be judged on those who were maybe overzealous.”
I went back to Newtown on a weekday afternoon a month after the shootings. The memorials that had lined the streets of the Sandy Hook village were gone, as were the media hordes. The only hints I saw of the tragedy were window signs reading “We are Newtown, We Choose Love” and the “Newtown Strong” bracelets that were available in the local coffee shop. There also was a lone telephone pole adorned with 26 roses not yet wilted from the cold. Less than a mile from the school, Treadwell Memorial Park was quiet. The news trucks, helicopters and cameras were gone and it was hard to believe they were ever there. I could even hear the hum of cars on nearby Interstate 84 that I hadn’t heard in the days following the shootings; the media scene had been far too loud.
As I stood alone in the park, then walked through the empty playground where many of the young victims had most likely come to play, I wondered if those who’d criticized the media were right. Had our presence really accomplished anything? As a journalist I believe there is an inherent value in the truth, and it is important to ask questions—even and perhaps especially when there are no easy answers. What could have been done to prevent this massacre? How can we assure that no one else experiences what the victims and their families did and are still experiencing? If as a society we are ever going to find these answers, we need to begin by asking questions.