The Sandy Hook Advisory Commission discussed broadening its mission to analyze the impact of media culture on violence when it met Friday to review the legislature’s response to the Newtown shooting.
The commission was established by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy in January. He charged the group with making gun violence, mental health, and school safety recommendations in response to the Dec. 14 murders in Newtown when a gunman entered an elementary school and killed 20 first graders and six adults.
The commission released an interim report in March, recommending strict gun control changes.
Meanwhile, the legislature commissioned its own special committee to address gun violence, mental health, and school safety in response to the shooting. In April, lawmakers passed a bipartisan bill including new gun control restrictions, which Malloy quickly signed into law.
The commission met Friday in Hartford to review that and other bills passed by lawmakers this year. Lawyers from the Hartford law firm McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter presented the group with an overview of legislation passed this session.
“What we’re really trying to do at this point is take our interim recommendations, compare them to what actually happened, and determine where we want to continue digging in,” the commission’s chairman, Hamden Mayor Scott Jackson, said.
But the commission also discussed expanding its goals beyond the three topics specifically referenced in its mission.
Although the bill was not included in the commission’s legislative overview, David Schonfeld, chief pediatrician at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children, sought to include legislation the General Assembly passed carving out exceptions to the state’s Freedom of Information law.
The bill prevents the release of any photograph or video recording that portrays the body of a homicide victim. It also prohibits for one year, the release of law enforcement audio recordings describing the bodies of children who are murdered. The families of some of the Newtown victims lobbied for the legislation late in the session.
Schonfeld said the bill and a legislative task force it creates rightly seek to balance victims’ rights with the general public’s right to know under FOI laws. But he said the bill presumes the public benefits from seeing audio and video of traumatic events. He said some research suggest otherwise, pointing to a link between post-traumatic stress and exposure to media coverage of traumatic events.
“There also is another silent and perhaps even more pressing issue in my opinion about the protection of children and adults from media exposure that contains graphic images of these events,” he said.
The discussion represents new territory for Malloy’s panel and it will again see the group working independently but in parallel with a panel convened by the legislature.
Although the legislature’s FOI exemption bill ultimately passed with broad support, it was the product of last minute negotiations behind closed doors with parties including the Malloy administration. Initially many lawmakers were reluctant to alter the state’s transparency statute.
Jackson said it is important that his group look at the effects of media, whether its news media or violent programming and video games. The commission’s final report will seek to address a wide variety of areas.
“I think we have an obligation to take a look at it and decide whether or not we feel there is value to incorporating information on media culture—on the effects of seeing violent activities,” he said.
It is unclear what if any guidance the governor has given the Sandy Hook Commission as it continues its work, or whether Malloy wants to see further changes to the Freedom of Information law. He is in charge of appointing two of the 17 people who will be asked to tackle the issue as part of the separate task force.
But the commission seems to be striving to have its final report also serve as a resource for other states, independent of what Connecticut chooses to change in response to the Sandy Hook shooting. Members often compare their efforts to panels and reports created in response to other school shootings like 1999 Columbine High School shooting and the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting.
“We’re not actually just talking about Connecticut… The audience for the final report is not specifically Connecticut,” Jackson told the commission Friday.
The commission is expected to begin the work of drafting its final report when it meets next in August. Their process has been impeded somewhat by not having access to an official police report on the December massacre. State police are still working on completing the report.
Jackson said he is no longer frustrated by the time it has taken to release the report.
“I was until I had a chance to serve on a panel with one of the fathers of the victims. He said ‘You know what, I know what happened. I would prefer to wait and see the right report than get a report.’ That statement by that gentleman changed my mind,” he said.