Methinks it was Teddy Roosevelt who once said, “The men with the muck-rake are often indispensable to the well-being of society, but only if they know when to stop raking the muck.”
I’m pretty sure the profoundly grieving residents of Newtown are just about at the same point TR was when he became fed up. As if the massacre of 20 children and six adults weren’t enough, the people of Newtown have been subject to media scrutiny at a level we haven’t seen since 9/11.
Of course, it doesn’t help matters that the site of the worst mass shooting of young school children in U.S. history is only 60 miles from Midtown Manhattan — a proximity that easily allows major media outfits to set up shop and ply their trade for perhaps weeks on end.
To be sure, the massacre was a major news story that warranted extensive coverage and the requisite soul searching for a nation that has been visited by this kind of evil on an all-too-regular basis. But after the blood had dried and the parade of tiny coffins had begun, wasn’t it time for the media to pack up their belongings and leave Sandy Hook to weep and heal away from the lens of the camera and the glare of the lights?
Of course, it’s entirely appropriate for the press to continue to follow the story — to probe into the life of Adam Lanza, for example, so that we can learn more about mental health and access to firearms. Or to take a hard look at the mechanics of the crime to see what can be done to improve school security. But what journalistic purpose is served by covering the funerals, chatting with Lanza’s barber or interviewing a surviving child, even with the parents’ permission?
At a certain point, this media exercise becomes less about covering the news than it is about voyeurism. After all, there is no grief more unimaginable and indescribable than the loss of a child. And as the story of the massacre itself begins to fade, reporters will be under increasing pressure to probe even further into Newtowners’ lives and take greater ethical risks in doing so.
In the last couple of days, there have been reports of journalists and media crews “invading the yards and space of grieving survivors, school staff and responders,” according to Newtown Bee associate editor John Voket, who felt compelled to write the New England Newspaper and Press Association asking for its members to exercise restraint. According to the Poynter Institute, reporters and producers have also been trolling on social media, aggressively hunting for potential sources, perhaps emboldened by a digital wall devoid of interaction with living, breathing human beings.
One state lawmaker from Newtown, Rep. DebraLee Hovey, has prevailed on the media to “step off.” Echoing the sentiments of her thousands of weary constituents, Hovey sighed, “The story is over. The families are burying their loved ones.”
As one might expect, The Bee and other Connecticut news media have been among the most responsible and respectful. So has The Courant, which has done some crackerjack reporting on how the killings were carried out.
Local media tend to be the most sensitive in covering these kinds of stories. After all, these journalists have friends among the grieving. The daughter of longtime Connecticut journalists Teresa Rousseau and Bill Leukhardt, for example, was among the faculty members who failed to make it out of Sandy Hook Elementary School alive.
A shining light amid the media circus has been Lt. J. Paul Vance, who has been the chief public affairs officer for the Connecticut State Police for 15 years. Poised, confident and articulate, Vance has a way of making the media feel as if he and they are engaged in a joint effort to get at the truth. He doesn’t get testy when reporters ask him questions he can’t answer because he understands their profession better than most law enforcement officers. I’ve interviewed Vance several times and was pleased to see him receive national notice for his skill and compassion.
The mass media, too, are going to have to ask themselves some serious questions in the wake of this tragedy. But there has been little formal reaction from filmmakers and video-game producers. Hollywood, for example, has been conspicuous in its silence — perhaps because of the gun violence and objectification prevalent in so many of its films. And wouldn’t movie stars with armed-to-the-teeth bodyguards look foolish in calling for more gun control for the great unwashed?
I don’t know what the solution is. Perhaps the news media could pool their resources for these crises in the same way they do when the president takes a trip abroad. At any rate, the “No Media Beyond This Point” signs cropping up in Newtown should tell us something. The media need to get out of Dodge and go back to their job of “comforting the afflicted.”
Terry Cowgill blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com, is the editor of ctessentialpolitics.com and was an award-winning editor and senior writer for The Lakeville Journal Company. He can be found on Twitter @terrycowgill.