What happened in Newtown, Connecticut is horrific. It is an event that has bruised our national psyche. Like thousands across this country and this world, I’m sad, disgusted and angry about it. What happened there is unconscionable.
As journalists, how do you possibly report on something that is unspeakable?
It’s an exceedingly difficult story to cover. In the minutes and hours after the event, some of the news reporting wasn’t accurate. In the effort to talk to someone — anyone — to find out what was happening, sometimes children were placed in front of television cameras and microphones. National and international media converged upon, and have overwhelmed, a small community that never, ever wanted to be at the center of the global media spotlight.
There are legitimate things to criticize in the news coverage of this massacre. There are always legitimate things to criticize in journalism. Journalists should be used to criticism. We hold people accountable, and in turn, we need to be held accountable, too. We put ourselves and our work before the public every day, and sometimes multiple times a day, and there’s no shortage of people who are ready to smack it down for any number of reasons.
That’s already happening with the coverage coming out of Newtown.
I’m seeing some of the same old tired, trite criticisms of the news media. Editorial cartoons depicting national news organizations as vultures circling overhead. Opinion columns about how “the media” should be so ashamed for what they’re doing. These types of columns rarely offer constructive criticism; instead, the writers have decided that they don’t like something they’ve seen or heard, they rant about how terrible “the media” is, and then they paint all news media with the same broad brush.
That’s scapegoating, and it is so, so easy to do.
First of all, you’re not there (most likely). I’m not either, but I’ve covered events that thrust my community into the international spotlight. The Birmingham abortion clinic bombing of 1998 and the deadly, devastating F5 tornado of April 8, 1998 were just two that happened relatively close together. National and international media converged on my community in both of these cases, and I was right in the middle of all of it.
The day after that horrible tornado tore through Jefferson County, Alabama, I was walking through wastelands that had been neighborhoods just the day before. I saw a family sitting on the concrete foundation of their home — that’s all that was left — and started walking through their yard toward them. It was pretty obvious who I was and what I was doing. The headphones, microphone and recorder gave me away.
I wondered two things as I walked for what seemed to be an exceedingly long time: will they talk to me, or will they tell me to go to hell?
I introduced myself, told them where I worked (I stressed that I was a local reporter, for sure) and I told them how terribly sorry I was for what had happened to them. I also told them that people across the country were concerned about what had happened here, I was hoping to help these other people understand, and I asked if they would be willing to share their experiences with me.
That interview stands out in my memory even today because of how I felt as I approached those people who had literally lost everything they had. I was nervous. I didn’t want to bother them. I didn’t want to be accused of being a vulture journalist. I didn’t want to upset them any more than they already were.
But my job — our job, as journalists — is to help explain what is happening as best as we can while being as sensitive as we can when the circumstances are particularly difficult. We must talk with people to accomplish this.
So please don’t board the News Media Scapegoat Train. There are always a few members of any profession who don’t adhere to the highest standards of professionalism and ethics. Dismiss these idiots and focus instead on the journalists who are doing admirable work, those who are telling the story of Newtown with sensitivity, thoroughness, and respect.
These journalists have been handed a tough assignment, and they don’t deserve a bunch of armchair critics who have no idea how difficult it is to cover such a tragic story.