Sandy Hook Coverage: Don’t Judge the Media So Harshly, It’s Hard for Them, Too
Many Americans are reacting with disgust at the media coverage of last week’s massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
Understandably, such a sensitive story involving 20 young children and six self-sacrificing adults deserves the highest caliber of accurate information and coverage.
Yet, the errors have been plentiful and serious. From the incorrect information about the shooter’s identity as Ryan Lanza instead of Adam Lanza, to the shooter’s weapons, and the ages of the victims.
Perhaps the greatest outcry: interviewing surviving children.
No question, it can go too far in today’s competitive 24-hour news cycle.
Yet, as much as the public wants to hate the news media, they want to hate themselves too.
Journalism schools teach future reporters how to write well-constructed stories, interview news sources and build source relationships.
In the beginning, you cover public meetings, a major land development project, city elections or the occasional famous person.
It’s exciting and you revel in the chance to make a difference in the community.
But after a few years on the job, it becomes clear that all those terrible stories – from the Holocaust to 9/11 – had story tellers who tracked down the truth.
Being the messenger doesn’t make you immune to the pain.
Many crime victim survivors pushed me and my peers to be better, more caring reporters.
The mantra: Tell the story knowing one day, it could be you.
But for all the training and interview role playing a journalist does, nothing prepares you to face insurmountable grief and still manage to ask “what happened.”
Many years ago, I found myself knocking on a mother’s door whose son committed a “suicide-by-cop” just the night before.
I didn’t want to go. My editor pushed me out the door with the directive to return only when I have a quote and a photo of the victim.
The victim mixed a vicious dosage of cocaine and alcohol with an aggressive case of chronic depression. After barricading himself in his room, his mother called law enforcement to talk him out and return him to his most recent treatment facility.
Several hours of negotiations ended when he brandished a rifle through his bedroom window. Law enforcement opened fire. The rifle in question was an unloaded b-b gun.
Early in the morning, I awaited the arrival of the medical examiner’s office with our crime photographer to get photos of the scene. Crime scene investigators marked off where all the casings landed outside.
After watching his lifeless body be pushed into the medical examiner’s van, I sought out the mother for an interview.
“I killed my son,” she wept uncontrollably, holding onto my shoulders. “Why did I call the police?”
I filed my story, went home and cried myself to sleep.
Several weeks later, his autopsy and toxicology report lay on my desk.
Reading it over and over, I absorbed every detail: the diagrams of his young body, the holes, his healthy organs, the toxic amount of drugs and alcohol in his system.
I recall being amazed by the language used by the medical examiner, describing his appearance as handsome, young and athletic.
His existence boiled down to paper work.
Another awful day, another sad story, another sleepless night.
That happened several times in my journalism career. The stories, the interviews of crime victims, the pictures of the loved and lost – it all haunted me.
It’s precisely why I cannot watch any coverage of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
I skip every Facebook post, every Tweet, every story. I pray very hard and thank God I’m not one of those unfortunate reporters on the front lines.
For me, I had to psyche myself out just to talk with a crime victim without shaking like a leaf. In my mind, I wouldn’t want to talk to a reporter and yet, there I would be notebook in hand.
One woman who lost her son to a high-profile murder worked with me at a journalism workshop. I shared my personal obstacles and the difficulty in approaching people like her just for a news story.
“Talking about my son brought me peace,” she said. “At first, I felt under siege like you would expect. But then I realized, nobody else was asking me to tell his story. It helped him live on.”
Reporters are imperfect people who make mistakes, sometimes lots of them and sometimes really big ones.
Arguably the mistakes made covering Sandy Hook were done in haste and in the name of competition. That sort of lazy, ethically-lax work deserves intense scrutiny by those news organizations.
But reporters are people none the less. They feel the hurt just as people around the world do.
And for reporters dealing directly with victims, they’re experiencing this tragedy as none of us would want to.
No matter how imperfect, we should be thankful that our nation still supports a free press willing to shed light in dark places few would dare go.
It just might be a well-told story that eases the heart and mind of a Sandy Hook parent.