Newtown is a small community trying to cope with the loss of dozens of children and educators. But it’s also become the temporary home to a massive media operation as news outlets from around the globe dispatched reporters to cover the story of Friday’s massacre.
Three days ago, a gunman shot 20 first graders and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School before taking his own life. Since then journalists have come in droves from all over the world and set up shop in the small village.
Sunday saw a visit from President Barack Obama, who came to comfort the families of the victims and to speak at an interfaith vigil for the town. There was no shortage of media present to get the story.
Throughout the day, Newtown’s narrow roads were lined with parked cars, many from outside the state, and satellite trucks broadcasting television reports. Journalists could be seen doing stand-ups near makeshift memorials, some of them speaking in foreign languages.
As residents from Sandy Hook and nearby towns came to pay their respects or leave a teddy bear beside some lit candles, cameramen were present to record their grief. As mourners wiped tears from their eyes and turned to head back to their vehicles, reporters were there, notebooks in hand, to get their reactions.
Later in the evening as the town prepared for the president’s vigil, media tents were raised up and down the street leading to Newtown High School. A television crew set up its operation on the roof of a business across the street.
For many residents the media presence is no doubt an inconvenience. It was difficult to travel around Newtown by car. A steady stream of traffic clogged roads and it was often faster to travel on foot. For others the presence was a distraction for a community looking to heal.
That was the case for Edward Lenox Jr., who described Newtown as a tight-knit community. He said he was frustrated by the influx of news media and onlookers who came to the town because of Obama’s visit.
“Everybody knows each other here. But I don’t know these faces,” he said standing in the high school parking lot. “I want to be with my community.”
However, many people who agreed to be interviewed said they thought the heavy media presence was at least to be expected given the severity of what happened in Newtown and the nature of today’s media market.
“In today’s age, I guess it’s just inevitable,” said Tom Holloway, a Southbury resident who came to pay his respects.
Holloway said given the tragic nature of the incident it wasn’t surprising that people around the world wanted information.
Several people said they felt the media coverage may help people who are outside the community — but who nonetheless felt impacted by the event — find some sort of catharsis.
Paul and Wendy Ferencz of nearby Trumbull said it would be nice if the community was left to grieve with friends and neighbors, but said perhaps it would be selfish to deprive the world of coverage of such an awful event.
“People all over the world want to have some sort of connection,” Ferencz said.
Colleen Litof of Redding said she was impressed by the number of international reporters covering the town. She said responsible media accounts can raise awareness that can lead to change.
“I hope this becomes a trigger for some kind of action,” she said.
In general, Litof said, it seemed as if journalists were being respectful. But she said it is disturbing when reports of horrific events trend toward sensationalism. She said she could have done without some of the details that have been reported on the shooting. For instance, she said accounts of how many times the victims were shot were overboard and did not help anyone.
“It’s just disgusting,” she said. “I don’t think that helps. I detest when things turn the corner to sensationalism.”
Richard Hanley, an associate professor of journalism at Quinnipiac University, said Monday that while the details can be unpleasant to hear, they belong in the news accounts.
“It’s not the job of the media to sort of euphemistically report a story. That’s not how we do business,” he said in a phone interview.
Hanley said when a reporter omits a detail, even if it’s an unpleasant one, it leaves a gap in the story. That gap can be quickly filled by rumors or misinformation, especially in today’s fast-moving age of social media.
“The further you get from the details, the story becomes more abstract,” he said.
That’s not to say that journalists enjoy covering tragedies or gory details, Hanley said. “This is a tough story to cover. People think reporters are salivating over lurid details and that’s just not the case.”
Hanley said most journalists have self-imposed rules and try to respect the delicacy of a situation like what Newtown is facing. The majority of reporters, for instance, won’t try to interview children without their parents’ consent.
Marc Goergen, a reporter for Stern, a weekly magazine in Germany, flew to the U.S. the day after the shooting. Standing near a memorial near Sandy Hook Elementary School, he said reporters covering events like mass shootings often weigh another concern: whether their reports can contribute to inadvertently inspiring copycat crimes.
“It’s a tough question but what’s the alternative?” he asked. “Some people do this to become famous. They want attention. You have to be careful with the coverage.”
One way to resist sensationalizing the killer is to keep the focus on victims, survivors, and their families. Goergen said in the past he’s found families receptive to reporters if they interact with them in a respectful way. He said often just leaving a letter in a family member’s mailbox has resulted in interviews.
But for the time being the media likely will continue to cover those grieving in the public spaces in Newtown.
Hanley said the immense media presence likely was bolstered by the town’s proximity to the New York media market, which enabled news outlets to operate there for a sustained length of time.
He said he expected the media to remain there at least until the end of the week. Then, as State Police briefings slow, news people will begin to depart and Newtown will begin to return to as normal a state as it can in the aftermath of tragedy.
And while the scale and scope of the media operation may look overboard, Hanley said it was merely reflective of the state of the news industry in late 2012. Each of the many individual news outlets are only trying to fulfil their responsibilities to cover the story, he said.
“This was an extraordinarily tragic event. So the density of coverage would reflect that,” he said.