December 13, 2013

According to The Washington Post, a long list of respected journalism organizations including ABC News, CNN, CBS News, Fox News, NBC News, NPR, The New York Times, USA Today and the Post itself say they plan to stay away from Newtown, Conn., Saturday, the first anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting. WFSB-TV in Hartford announced a few weeks ago that it would not be in Newtown Saturday barring an unforeseen event.

It is the second strong show of restraint in a month. Barely anybody aired the 9-1-1 calls from the schools that officials released.

The reasons to stay away Saturday are the same reasons not to air the tapes. There isn’t enough news there to justify invading the townpeoples’ privacy. There are no public memorials or ceremonies scheduled for Saturday.

Newtown First Selectman Pat Llodra told reporters, “Our request is as a community, that you not come here.” Llodra said townspeople don’t want a bunch of TV trucks and cameras clogging the streets. “That has a chilling effect on every resident of our community,” she said.

Interim Superintendent of Schools John Reed, said, “These people have wanted their own privacy. They’ve had their doors knocked on at 9 o’clock at night, 9:30 at night. They’ve been approached and approached and approached. And they’re concerned about being defined by a 30-second clip in the evening news. “

Longtime journalist and now Poynter senior faculty Butch Ward said, “If somebody called with a great story and the only way to get it is to go there, I would go there. In the absence of a great and important story, I don’t know why you would go other than to say you went. That is a news decision, not based on whether somebody called you and said ‘don’t come.”

“It’s NOT whether we cover this story, it is HOW we cover the story of what happened at Sandy Hook,” Bob Haiman, the former editor of The St. Petersburg Times and retired president of The Poynter Institute told me. “You have to ask if the most important stories about this shooting are on the streets of Newtown a year later. I saw a study that pointed out there were many more state laws passed after the Sandy Hook shooting to weaken state gun laws than to strengthen them. That is a story worth exploring,” Haiman said.

Many Sandy Hook parents became public figures when they campaigned for new gun laws. And still, they deserve privacy when they choose to mark moments of grief and reflection. It’s not like the families have not been accessible. On Monday, families stood in front of the media, said how they would be remembering their lost children and they unveiled a new memorial website. Thursday, families held a memorial service at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., and TV stations covered the event live. So there no shortage of coverage.

Journalists have become reliant on anniversary coverage. When NBC didn’t carry the 2012 “9/11 Moment of Silence” live, they caught hell for it and apologized. The New York Times and the New York Post also moved coverage of 9/11 off their front pages in 2012, a move that created public conversation about when it is time for journalists to move on.

But let’s be clear, restraint does not always equal ethical. Sometimes 9-1-1 tapes are both sensational AND newsworthy, consider the police calls at the center of the Trayvon Martin case for example.  Sometimes journalists must go even where they are not wanted because it is their job to be there and tell the story of what happened. The whole nation had something at stake after the Sandy Hook shooting as Congress and then states debated new gun and ammo laws.

“There is nothing new about anniversary coverage, especially coverage of a tragedy,” Haiman said. “When I was a newspaper editor, anytime we failed to say something about Pearl Harbor on the front page of the December 7th edition of the paper, we would get calls accusing us of being anti-American and uncaring. The same was true on the anniversaries of VE Day and VJ Day.” So there are two ways to disrespect the families — covering it insensitively is just one way. Ignoring the story can be harmful, too.

While the families may walk away from the TV cameras this weekend, others won’t.  A group called “Mom’s Demand Action” is launching an ad and YouTube video and says it will hold gatherings in 35 states to mark the shooting. The ad, called “No More Silence” shows children standing in a classroom with a clocking ticketing down to the exact time of the Sandy Hook shooting. A person with a bag, presumably carrying a weapon, walks through a school door. The announcer says, “On December 14th, we’ll have a moment of silence for Newtown. But with 26 more school shootings since that day, ask yourself — is silence what America needs right now?”

Even if journalists decide not to go to Newtown for the anniversary, there is plenty of reporting to be done around guns and gun laws. The easiest way to tell the story of the anniversary is to gather soundbites from townspeople, attend a memorial service and call it a day. Deeply exploring the complexities of gun issues, politics, mental health, violence, criminology and America’s deeply rooted gun ownership culture is a lot harder to cover than a press conference. It’s also likely more meaningful.

Avoiding Newtown is not the same as avoiding the issues surrounding it. At least it shouldn’t be.

 Related: Newtown’s media blackout forces journalists to do their jobs

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
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