A Year After Newtown

December 23, 2013 • Ethics and Quality • by

A call for enhanced training and newsroom resources for future catastrophies.

A year after the Newtown massacre, when a lone gunman killed 20 children and 6 staff in their schoolrooms, advocacy groups on both sides of the gun control issue are pushing their agendas, the Federal government is pledging another $100 million for mental health services and a small town in New England ihuddled together in solemn remembrance. News media outlets are once again faced with numerous ethical dilemmas in their approach to the anniversary. Some television networks chose to broadcast the 911 calls from the panicked teachers and citizens who first called for help as Adam Lanza started his assault, while other outlets abstained from airing the content. Newtown residents asked news reporters to stay away from their town while they commemorate the event privately.

In my research, I look at the ethical quandaries reporters had to deal with when the massacre first happened one year ago. The fact that many people forget is that the way we came to know what was happening on the ground over those first few days following December 14th, 2012, was through the news reporters tasked with creating the narrative from a chaotic and emotionally overwrought landscape.

By speaking with six individuals, representing print and television news mediums, ranging from early career reporters to long-time veterans, I ventured to recreate the scene from the reporters’ eyes. In the qualitative analysis, six emergent themes came to the fore; structure vs. instinct, location governing content, a mistake-prone environment, content outcomes, lack of resources and protocol and finally an emergent explanatory model I titled Lord of the Flies Theory.

The first category, structure versus instinct, represents the phenomena that virtually all of my interviewees attested that they had no master plan going into the coverage and had to rely on their gut reactions to determine what information to get and, more importantly, how to get it. As Connecticut News Times Managing Editor Jacky Smith said, “You don’t have the time to get everyone together and say ‘Okay, here’s what we’re facing,’ we didn’t know what we were facing at first, you just go out there and get it and then as the story evolves you respond to it.” Some reporters either witnessed other news workers, or themselves admitted to, approaching people off the street just to try and drum up some sort of relevant content. One reporter, who wished to remain anonymous, indicated that if he had to do it over again, he just wouldn’t go back saying, “We are horrible people.”

The next emergent category deals with location governing content. Being that I included reporters ranging from local to regional to national, they each had to structure their content choices for their select audiences. John Voket, Associate Editor for the Newtown Bee, was one of the first reporters on scene and possibly the only one who was allowed inside the firehouse near the school, the reunion point for many families and children. After days of watching his small town being broadcast to the world he thought, “They were only there literally because of the blood in the water. Once they proved to their audience that they had somebody there and tried to localize the trauma for their own audience then they were gonna get reeled back in from their own local place.” At one point, some reports have the news worker population near 1000 people in a town of 30,000.

With little to no protocol for this type of event, and swarms of reporters trying to do virtually the same thing, the environment was a hotbed for mistakes. News workers had to sift through a slew of rumors and hearsay in their efforts to put something new out by deadline. There was a second shooter rumor that many outlets published over the first few hours. There was also the story about the shooter being Adam’s brother Ryan. There was a rumor about a maroon van being the getaway car, and news teams were driving all over Western Connecticut trying to be the first team to get footage of the getaway car being pulled over. None of those narratives bore any fruit, and unfortunately only caused more confusion and angst for reporters and Newtown residents. PBS National Correspondent Hari Sreenavasan, who didn’t arrive on scene until two days after the shooting says there shouldn’t be a news report of unconfirmed reports, “What am I paying you for? Why am I watching you? An unconfirmed report that people have landed from another planet on the Burnside Bridge (sic), OK, someone has to verify that in real time.”

As the hours turned into days, the news content tended to streamline toward two different types of reports, shooter profile reports and victim tributes. The news reporters I spoke with tended to agree that one of the most powerful ways they can help prevent another tragedy like this one was to humanize the event. That meant to tell stories about every single victim, including the mother Nancy Lanza and even to feature the shooter, Adam Lanza. The reporters I engaged with admit that there are far more questions than answers, but there’s a human nature to want to know why something like Newtown ever happened, that’s how Adam Lanza’s profile stories were so prevalent. Brian Burnell, Northeast Cable News Connecticut Bureau Chief, speaks to the dilemma of a shooter profile news piece, “Don’t we need to find out what happened with Adam Lanza in order to do this unthinkable thing? To prevent it from happening again? So that’s the value of it. But from our point of view in terms of a ratings grabber, if you get the next Charlie Manson and put him in front of your cameras and do a 30 minute documentary you’re gonna get some numbers, that’s the sexy aspect of it.”

Should a tragedy of this magnitude ever befall another community again, the reporters I spoke with indicate that the best way to avoid factual inaccuracies and reduce the press’ footprint on a grieving community, is to leverage relationships and technology better. Working across network and affiliate partnerships will mean that the news team from Houston doesn’t have to drive to Connecticut for content if they have an affiliate team already stationed there. Secondly, by pulling news conference footage from one feed will eliminate the frenzy that happens when the State Police give their daily briefing. Reporters agree that the other recommendation has to do more with human conduct, that there should be some sort of code demanding that reporters leave families alone until they are ready to talk. Burnell notes that had his team not been so rushed to get exclusive content from the mourning families, and they waited a few days to speak with them, they might have actually gotten more substantive content about the investigation rather than just the grief and shock they were able to capture.

Lastly, the parallels between what I uncovered about the experiences of Newtown shooting reporters and the Nobel-prize winning story Lord of the Flies were strong enough to draw a compelling model that serves as an explanatory tool for what occurs in scenes like the Newtown shooting. An alien environment, rife with competition and frenzy, where reporters have to rely on their instincts to remain viable makes reporters devolve into more animalistic states. The same model can be applied to coverage of the Amish school shooting, the Columbine shootings and Virgina Tech among other shooter events as well as the Boston bombings.

My research points toward the need for more training for journalists to be able to handle catastrophic events without losing their credibility and integrity. This need can be met through recurrent trainings offered in working newsrooms as well as in Journalism schools through out the world. If these events are going to take place, it would be wise to make sure that the journalists who are charged with covering them have the tools and skills needed to handle them with the utmost of sensitivity and accuracy.

Photo credit: much0 / Flickr Cc

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