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IVOH | July 25, 2014

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How the media can improve its coverage of Newtown anniversary, tragedies

How the media can improve its coverage of Newtown anniversary, tragedies
Mallary Jean Tenore

There’s been a lot of talk about Newtown’s request that the media “stay away” on the one-year anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

Newtown selectman Pat Llodra recently told journalists: “We are on a grief journey and we are healing and the media can be an impediment to that healing because it creates some barriers that are difficult for our community.”

Several major news outlets have said they’re going to respect Newtown’s wishes, including NBC News, ABC News and The Washington Post. The Associated Press, meanwhile, will be in Newtown on the anniversary. AP East Region Editor Karen Testa told the Post’s Erik Wemple: “We have covered every aspect of this tragedy from the beginning. As we have from the day of the shooting, we will be sensitive to the families and the town and respectful in our coverage.”

Newtown’s request that the media stay away reflects a common belief: journalists get in the way of things, and in the wake of tragedies, their presence does more harm than good. That belief is reinforced when we hear stories about journalists pounding on doors for interviews, or camping out on people’s front lawns. To change people’s perspective, we have to show how the media can have a positive impact — through the stories we tell and the way we interact with the communities we’re covering.

Opening up to the media

Scarlett Lewis and her son Jesse, who was killed at age 6. Photo courtesy of the Choose Love Foundation.

Scarlett Lewis and her son Jesse, who was killed at age 6. Photo courtesy of the Choose Love Foundation.

Scarlett Lewis decided early on that she wanted to talk with the media about her son Jesse, who was killed in the Newtown shootings. Doing so, she says, has enabled her to keep Jesse’s memory alive and let others know that it’s possible to recover from a tragedy.

“People want to know how the families are healing,” Lewis said in a phone interview with ivoh. “I feel like people care, they truly do, and I want them to know how I’m healing.”

Lewis says she thinks the news stories about Newtown, and the images that accompanied them, compelled people to act.

“I believe the media, on Dec. 14, played a big part in helping create the world’s greatest day of compassion. Compassion is two-part; the first part is feeling someone else’s pain. The second part is acting. People saw the images of what happened, but … they didn’t just look at them and feel bad; they actually acted on it and tried to ease our pain,” Lewis said.

People around the world reached out to Lewis after reading stories about her and seeing her on the “Today” show, where she spread the word about her book, “Nurturing, Healing Love.” The book describes how Jesse helped his Sandy Hook classmates run to safety in the final moments before his death. Lewis started the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Foundation to help children and communities choose love over anger.

Dealing with painful coverage

Even though she’s been willing to talk with the media, Lewis has purposely avoided most of the Newtown coverage.

“Since day one, I haven’t been reading articles about the tragedy,” Lewis said. “That may sound strange to you, but I feel like I’m living it, and I feel like I don’t need to read about it. It’s painful to read about.” She said it helps that she doesn’t have a TV and doesn’t subscribe to a newspaper. Occasionally, she reads articles she’s been interviewed for — “enough to know the media is being true to their word and reporting my story accurately.”

Consuming news about a tragedy like the Newtown shooting can cause added stress, even for those who haven’t been personally affected by it. A new UC Irvine study published this week found that repeated exposure to media coverage of a tragic event leads people to experience acute stress symptoms.

The findings suggest there’s a need for coverage that balances out negative news about tragedies. By telling stories about how people are coping, instead of continuing to focus on the tragedy itself, journalists can capture the meaningful movement from heartbreak to hope. This is where restorative narratives — a genre that ivoh has been exploring — come into play.

Asking sources genuine questions, listening to what they want

Lewis says she was willing to talk with the first TV reporter who approached her because she sensed that he cared. George Colli, an investigative reporter at WVIT-TV, told Lewis that he loved what she was doing with her foundation and wanted to help her.

“What can I do?” she remembers him asking.

Lewis could tell by his expression and the tone of his voice that he was being genuine.

“I believed him,” she said. “He was true to his word; he interviewed me and did a beautiful piece.”

That simple question — “what can I do?” can go a long way. It conveys interest, care, and concern. What if more journalists covering the Newtown anniversary asked questions like this: “What type of coverage do you want to see from us?” “What’s missing from our coverage?” “How can we help?”

These questions remind me of the Newtown Bee’s response to the shootings. A New Yorker profile of the Bee says that Editor Curtiss Clark found himself thinking about the paper’s purpose in the tragedy’s aftermath:

He didn’t care if national reporters thought that he lacked a “hard-ass clinical angle.” When he learned that a camera crew had rung the doorbell of parents who had just lost their child, he wrote a letter to the New England Newspaper and Press Association, urging the media to stop “invading the yards and space of grieving survivors.” Another resident implored him, “Do anything in your power to get these media people out.”

In an editorial in a special edition of the Bee, published three days after the shooting, Clark counseled residents not to conform to the expectations of the “legions of journalists who had arrived in caravans of satellite trucks as if drawn by some dark star of calamity.”

Clark engaged with his readers, asked them questions, and listened to what they wanted. Then he acted on it. As the New Yorker piece points out, readers’ input helped shape the paper’s coverage of the tragedy.

Too often, we as journalists decide what makes a good story. We decide who to interview, what questions to ask, and how to frame our stories. A few years ago, ivoh board member Michael Skoler wrote about the disadvantages of having so much control:

“I fear that we have become disconnected from the public. We have made ourselves the judges of what is meaningful in the world, instead of asking the audience. Now and then, we judge right and our coverage builds connections between people, mobilizes action and changes lives.”

But sometimes our judgement is off. Sometimes we can come across as callous — as people who will go to extremes to get the stories we want. What if we let go of some of our control and convinced more people that they could trust us?

Perhaps by letting go, we could make people feel like they have a greater say in the narrative about their community. Maybe then, we could break down barriers between the public and the press and do a better job helping people heal — rather than being seen as “an impediment to that healing.”

Comments

  1. Bill Mitchell

    Nicely done, Mallary. The idea of going into stories like this with the simple question of “What can I do?” reminds me of Chip Scanlan’s first question when editing: “How can I help?”

    • Mallary Jean Tenore

      Thanks, Bill! I hadn’t thought about that. Good point.
      ~Mallary

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