Media serve important purpose during tragedy

karen.peterson@thenewstribune.comDecember 16, 2012 

It is with heavy hearts we continue our coverage today of the horrific shootings Friday in Newtown, Conn. Especially for the survivors, the families of those lost and the members of that community, it is an innocence lost, a sense of security shattered.

Unfortunately, our newsroom has become practiced in covering mass shootings. Newtown wasn’t even the first one last week. The shootings at the Clackamas Town Center in Portland happened only three days earlier.

On Friday, we could only wait for updates from our news services, share them live online and then assemble them in Saturday’s paper.

We wrote local stories, as well, attempting to answer questions of parents here. Has security been increased at my child’s school? Does my district have a plan if this should happen? Have local police learned new tactics for handling school shootings? Another story offered advice to those who must answer children’s difficult questions about the shootings. We think those are responsible additions to the coverage.

But by Saturday morning, there also came criticism of national media coverage (some of which we ran) of the shootings. As noted in our story on page A11 today, the number of initial factual mistakes was particularly bad on this story, and some of the broadcast reports were cringe-worthy.

The public is right to hold the media accountable and in some cases to expect better.

But one statement shared on Facebook on Saturday morning seemed nonsensical.

The commenter first criticized the “sensationalist media” for glorifying the suspected gunman. And then she both chastised reporters for speaking to survivors and family members and offered this: “Any articles or news stories yet that focus on the victims and ignore the killer’s identity? None that I’ve seen yet. Because they don’t sell.”

First, journalists should write about the shooter and — without over-speculation or sensationalism — explain how and why he did what he did. Learning more about mass shootings has helped law enforcement and school officials develop plans for handling them that likely saved lives, even at Sandy Hook.

Second, stories about the victims cannot be left out of the coverage. But the only way to get them is to talk to people who knew the victims.

This should be done sensitively. The opportunity should be offered to loved ones, not be forced upon them. It should be done when they’re ready. Journalists should treat family members as they would want to be treated in that godawful situation.

When dealing with tragic deaths in our own community, we find family members surprisingly willing to talk about those they lost. They know it’s the only way the rest of us will ever know their loved one as a person rather than a casualty.

Two columns Larry LaRue wrote about Rob Meline, who was killed in October in his Tacoma home by his mentally ill son, attempted to do that. Rather than let our crime story be the last word about Meline, LaRue went to the elementary school where he worked to learn what he meant to his students. Weeks later, Meline’s wife, Kim, asked to talk to LaRue about her husband and what led up to the attack.

Today’s front page is designed to memorialize those lost in the Newtown shootings while conveying the continuing news story. The victims’ stories weren’t told by Saturday morning on Facebook because their names hadn’t been released yet and because, thankfully, members of the media had respected the privacy of their families.

Already on Saturday, shortly after the names were made public, Robbie Parker chose to step forward and describe the 6-year-old daughter he lost at Sandy Hook.

“She was beautiful. She was blond. She was always smiling,” he said. “She never missed an opportunity to draw a picture or make a card for those she around her.” The world is a better place because Emilie was in it, he said.

Those stories are among the most important to tell. They also make us feel even more painfully what we’ve lost. Learn more about the victims on page A10.

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO …

It’s that time of year again when we revisit people we wrote about earlier in the year. For instance, wonder whatever happened to that baby born in a Tacoma elevator? We plan to tell you. If there’s someone else you’d like us to catch up with, send in your request to newstips@thenewstribune.com or call us at 253-597-8688.

Karen Peterson: 253-597-8434 karen.peterson@thenewstribune.com

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