Compassion goes a long way when reporting on tragedies like Boston & Newtown

Journalists are often warned about the perils of getting emotionally involved with stories and subjects, but when reporting on a tragedy there’s always room to act as a human being first and a reporter second.

Reporting on the pain of the small college town of Blacksburg, Va., after the horrific 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech, my natural instinct was to grieve with the folks there. At the time, though, I didn’t know how to use my emotions as a compass to help me connect with people I needed to interview.

But six years later, I know that for journalists in such terrible situations our humanity is a strength, not a weakness.

Bill Leukhardt, a reporter with the Hartford Courant, has seen tragedy from both sides. His stepdaughter, Lauren Rousseau, was one of the teachers killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14.

Leukhardt, whose wife is also a journalist, said during a recent symposium at Columbia University dealing with breaking news, trauma and the aftermath that they understood why they received so many media inquiries after their stepdaughter’s death. But that didn’t make it any easier to open up for interviews.

The symposium was presented by Columbia Journalism School’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism and the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma on Monday in New York City for an audience of mostly working journalists and journalism students.

Leukhardt and many other panelists had an overarching message for reporters speaking to the grieving: show compassion and acknowledge loss.

“Kindness is what really resonates with families,” Leukhardt said, adding that when people who knew victims don’t want to be interviewed, leave them alone. “Be respectful, be kind.”

Leukhardt’s advice was echoed throughout the day.

Pat Llodra, the First Selectwoman of Newtown, said she stressed the need for compassion with reporters during the first formal press conference in Newtown after the shootings.

“The message that I had to everyone gathered there was to remind them that it makes a difference to our community what you say,” recalled Llodra. “[I also told them that] how you represent us will make a difference in how we are seen to the world.”

Llodra and other residents of Newtown didn’t want to become known only as the place where a “horrible thing happened.” With that in mind, she recalled telling the press that “you hold our future a little bit in your hands, so please treat us gently, treat us with care.”

Controlling the message

After Sandy Hook, officials found themselves having to corral the enormous influx of media that descended on Newtown, and set up a staging area for journalists to help keep them contained and deliver a unified, official message.

Lieut. J. Paul Vance, chief spokesman for the Connecticut State Police, conveyed messages and information to the press during Sandy Hook’s aftermath. One of his main objectives, Vance said, was to “quell the rumor mill.”

Vance told the audience he was deeply impressed with the conduct of reporters. “I said to them at one point very early, ‘Please, leave the families alone,’ and they got it. They truly got it.”

After the Boston Marathon bombings, the rumor mill ran out of control, with sometimes bizarre consequences.

Andy Carvin, Senior Strategist for NPR, often uses social media — he has nearly 93,000 Twitter followers — to piece together or debunk stories. But he told the audience at Columbia that it’s not always easy to make sense of the mountains of information and hearsay that grow up during such events.

Carvin described the combination of a breaking-news situation such as Sandy Hook or Boston and social media as like a “game of telephone run amok.”

“Things are speeding up faster and faster,” said Carvin. “But I like to argue that in certain cases, if you’re able to get your followers on social media to get used to it, you can actually exercise the right to slow down.”

Carvin said that as the events in Sandy Hook and Boston unfolded, his Twitter followers would sometimes “frantically” tweet questions about pieces of unsubstantiated information. His response: silence.

“Rather than me blathering on every single thing I knew, I’d say, ‘Let me get back to you,’ ” Carvin said. He’d then check with colleagues and see what the local affiliate was reporting before responding.

Close to home

For Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen, last week’s bombings proved very personal.

Interviewing firefighters at Ladder 7, some of who are friends, Cullen found many had children who had known the youngest victim of the blasts, 8 year-old Martin Richard.

“You try to do your job, but really you’re reliving things with the first responders,” said Cullen. But he noted that for him, that means the memory of all the good people did after the bombings will outlive the act of violence to which they responded.

“Forces of goodness embarrass the forces of evil,” said Cullen.

For Leukhardt, whose daughter and stepson came with him to the symposium, being a force of goodness sometimes means reaching out to unlikely individuals.

In the crowd between panel discussions, I took the chance to tell Leukhardt and his daughter how sorry I was for their loss, and tears came to my eyes. Leukhardt’s daughter wrapped me in a bear hug as her father took a memorial photo of Lauren out of his pocket and gave it to me.

The photo of Lauren’s smiling face sat beside me on the table as I wrote this story. At the bottom of the photo is a simple message: “In her memory, please be a persuasive voice for peace on earth.”

On Thursday from noon to 3 p.m. ET, Poynter.org will air Google+ Hangouts with industry leaders who will talk about journalists’ coverage of Boston. You can visit this link Thursday morning to find out more.

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