Local journalists balance compassion, community service in coverage of Newtown shooting aftermath

Sandy Hook Elementary students are scheduled to resume classes a week from today, at a new location near Newtown, Conn., after 26 children and staff were killed at their school earlier this month.

Journalists descended on the small town to cover the aftershocks, in some cases making it difficult for residents to re-establish a sense of normalcy.

Newtown Bee Associate Editor Shannon Hicks said by email Wednesday that after the final funeral last weekend, “The flag on the 100-foot tall flagpole in the middle of Main Street was raised, and [the] majority of out-of-town (and out-of-area) media left.”

There was a growing resentment of the fact that the non-local media seemed to be waiting for that final funeral to be held. There was no need, in the eyes of many — myself included — for those funerals to have been covered, and for the families of the victims to have to go through a throng of cameras in order to reach each church or synagogue. It was so unnecessary. These were innocent children, not elected officials or celebrities who were being buried. There was no need to have such a media presence at the funerals.

The Bee sent a photographer out to take one photo at one funeral, and she photographed exactly what we asked for: a huge bank of camera lenses — huge ones — aimed at the front of St Rose of Lima Church as mourners entered the sanctuary to say goodbye to their loved one. The camera crews were piled up on part of the church lawn and even across the street, taking these pictures. It just seemed unreal.

Portraits of slain students and teachers hang from a tree at a memorial in Newtown, Conn. Tuesday, Dec. 25, 2012. (Craig Ruttle/AP)

By yesterday, there were a handful of people still shooting footage, and even that raised eyebrows. Did the rest of the world need to see residents as they tried to celebrate Christmas? Was there really a need to continue taping people as they approached the memorials around town?

We are not trying to lessen the importance of this terrible event, but there also seems to be a saturation point that was reached at some point last week.

Hicks and other local journalists have struggled with how to respond as they balance their responsibilities to their communities and to journalism.

“We would have people come in to offer their support to us, and they’d end up in a sobbing embrace with somebody, and this is happening in your workspace as a journalist, as you’re trying to put out news,” Bee Editor Curtiss Clark told The Connecticut Mirror.

Bee Education Reporter Eliza Hallabeck said, “I feel lucky to know journalists that can listen, and be supportive to the community, while also trying to be the mirror that we’re supposed to be, reflecting back things that happen.”

Dan Woog lives about 30 minutes away from Newtown in Westport, Conn., where he has been a local columnist for 26 years and a hyperlocal blogger for almost four years. Woog emailed Poynter about his interview with Adam Lanza’s teacher and the stories he has refused to tell in the tragedy’s aftermath.

Woog, a boys soccer coach and yearbook adviser at Staples High School, knew former Newtown High School teacher Jennifer Huettner, now Staples’ Latin teacher, because she’s a soccer fan.

“Like many people here in Westport, she has read my blog, and (I think) appreciated that I have reported on Newtown from a local, personal and (I hope) compassionate angle,” he said.

Dan Woog

I think there is an element of “compassionate community service” that’s not available in what we’ve come to know as “the mainstream press.”

That’s why, I think, Jennifer Huettner felt more comfortable speaking with me, than with “60 Minutes” or The Washington Post. When you’re speaking with someone you know, you don’t have to censor yourself, or give long background explanations, or put things in context, or worry about how your words will sound. You share a common background with the “reporter” (or blogger, whatever you want to call me), so you are able to tell the story the way you would with a friend or relative.

There are stories I have NOT written, because I am sensitive to the people who experienced them.

I know the father who arrived right as the shooting ended; he was going to make gingerbread houses in his child’s classroom. He was detained and questioned, in the moments when the police thought he was a second shooter. Meanwhile, he frantically worried about the fate of his child. That story is too raw for him to tell publicly.

I have heard (from a neighbor) the story of the mother who was in the meeting with the principal and school psychologist when Adam Lanza burst in; she saw the horror unfold.

Out of respect for them, and what they endured, I didn’t even pursue those stories. Does that make me a “bad” journalist? Or does it make me a “compassionate community service” blogger? Or is there some new definition of what we do? I don’t know the answer.

All I know is that people in my hometown — the one I cover — are hurting, and I can’t even conceive of what’s going on 20 minutes north. (I haven’t been up there. I just didn’t want to add to the crush. Again, that’s not great journalistic practice — but it’s my reaction as a neighbor.)

Everyone here in Westport is doing what they can to help friends and strangers in another town, very similar to ours. We all do what we can. Some people volunteer at the crisis center. Some help the police. Some hold anti-gun vigils. I have my words, so I am contributing them as best I can.

The father who was detained, “his child is fine (was in another classroom). But I can’t imagine what he went through during that time,” Woog said.

The Bee’s Hicks can imagine. She saw. And the images she captured that day of children evacuating and parents waiting will not only stay with us, they will stay with her. She told Time magazine, “I’m sure I will look through them someday … I just kind of wish that there were some that I could erase from my memory.”

Related: “We’re here because we feel telling what happened is indescribably important.” | “We do this work not because we want to talk with people at the worst moments of their lives. We do this work because people need us to.”

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  • AnneHamilton

    “I know the father who arrived right as the shooting ended; he was going to make gingerbread houses in his child’s classroom. He was detained and questioned, in the moments when the police thought he was a second shooter. Meanwhile, he frantically worried about the fate of his child. That story is too raw for him to tell publicly.”

    Actually, you just told it publicly.

  • http://www.facebook.com/cl.carbajal Cl Carbajal

    You are a true journalist. You know the meaning of respect, something many have forgotten.