Newtown's media blackout forces journalists to do their jobs
The one-year anniversary of a tragic event is a significant moment. But for journalists, such moments too often become opportunities for emotional exploitation rather than real journalism.
The citizens of Newtown, Conn., and the families of the Sandy Hook Elementary School victims have drawn a hard boundary around their homes. No media, they’ve said to the outside world. Don’t talk to the media, they’ve said to the 28,000 people who live in the community.
In doing so, they've deprived newsrooms of the easy visuals and rote storytelling that have sometimes substituted for meaningful journalism. And that's good: It forces journalists to do the hard work they should be doing on the first anniversary of the mass shooting that killed 20 first-graders and six adults.
In a way, it’s a gift to the audience everywhere that Newtown is spurning public events. Without requisite sights and sounds such as flickering candles, tolling bells, and names read aloud, journalists have to do something other than tap into the grief and rehash the horror of that day.
But it would be wrong to leave the anniversary itself unnoticed. Anniversaries, especially the one-year mark of a tragic event, are sometimes the best opportunity to gain a fresh perspective on the world. This is why counselors tell grieving people not to make major decisions for the first year after a loved one dies. A year later, the world looks much different -- maybe not better, but certainly not as fuzzy as it looked then.
Here’s what the best anniversary stories will look like:
- Many will offer updates on the national debates we are having about guns and mental health. Sure, these are obvious subjects. But done well, they can advance the conversation by describing the likely paths forward. And the best stories are those that bring new data or studies into the narrative. USA Today’s Behind the Bloodshed interactive graphic is a particularly good example, while this New York Times update on gun laws and Frontline’s look at the gun lobby are both sobering.
- Any perspective from the families will come through newsrooms that have established strong ties with the families of the slain children and teachers. This blog post by Emilie Parker’s mother is a strong example, and this AP story is particularly well done.
- Outside essayists will offer their thoughts in a variety of op-eds and columns.
- The journalists who do go to Newtown will have a plan. They will document the town and its people from a distance, instead of fighting with each other to interview everyone and anyone. And I’m OK with that. I don’t want to live in a world where journalists are afraid to cover important stories in ways they think serve the story. I want some journalists to be in Newtown, just not hundreds of them.
How to cover the Newtown anniversary depends on your audience. Local news providers need to focus on local stories, turning to their own communities. The wider your audience, the tougher the task of finding a relevant story.
Finally, here are a few things to avoid:
- Gratuitous use of images from that day. This may be tempting given the absence of fresh visuals, but using the image of the children in a line rushing from the school or the crying woman on the phone will likely cue the audience to move on.
- Political grandstanding. It’s possible that politicians and pundits will try to use the anniversary of these deaths to make a political point, and that cable news, talk radio, or other media with lots of time but few resources will allow them to do so. But let's hope not.
- Oversimplification. It's tempting for journalists who are used to making sense of complicated things to try and make sense of this. But some things defy such efforts, however well-intentioned. And trying to change that causes us to fall back on clichés about good and evil that will never be universally embraced.
We live in a media world of excess. With self-discipline, restraint and a sense of service to our audience -- rather than to our ratings or web metrics -- journalists should be able to provide meaningful stories a year after Newtown. And possibly such efforts can set the tone for future tragedies.
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“The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century” is now available. The book is a compilation of essays and case studies edited by Kelly McBride and Tom Rosenstiel, with a foreword by Bob Steele, for use in newsrooms, classrooms and other settings dedicated to a marketplace of ideas that serves democracy. You can find more information about the book here.