PUBLISHER'S NOTEBOOK: Community newspaper shows unique role in shooting incident
Wednesday, December 26, 2012 4:52 AM
The media coverage of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., has been intense. Hardly a minute goes by where there isn't a news report on some aspect of the shooting, either in print, on television or through other means.
The medium that most interested me, though, is the community newspaper. Although larger than my newspapers, the Newtown Bee is still a weekly newspaper that has close ties to the community similar to our newspapers.
The Poynter Institute, a school dedicated to teaching and inspiring journalists and media leaders, recently put together a story about the Newtown Bee's coverage.
"We operate a little differently because our job is to take care of the community so we were inside helping to comfort victims and trying to provide human support without necessarily making reporting the number one priority," associate editor John Voket told Poynter.
That contrasts with the national media, which narrowly focuses on getting the story. I'm not criticizing the national media because they have a job to do and even for small town newspapers, doing our job can, at times, seem cold to other people.
Although all media chase the story, things are different for staffs of small town newspapers. For example, the first reporter, and one of the first people, on the scene was another associate editor, Shannon Hicks, who is also a volunteer firefighter and heard a report of a possible shooting on a police scanner.
She immediately started taking photos when she arrived on the scene, even though she wasn't sure what was happening. The Associated Press contacted the Bee and asked to use one of her photos, which eventually ended up on the front pages of newspapers across the country, including the New York Times.
"I'm conflicted," she told Poynter. "I don't want people to be upset with me, and I do appreciate the journalists, especially, who have commented, saying 'We're just documenting the news.' "
"It's harder when it's in your hometown and these are children we're gonna watch grow up, the ones who made it. I know people are gonna be upset, but at the same time I felt I was doing something important."
By the time Hicks got a dispatch to report to the fire station, which shares a driveway with the school, she had been on the scene for some time. However, she put on her firefighter gear and stayed for another 20 minutes in her volunteer role before the newspaper decided it needed her back in the office to coordinate coverage as this was becoming a bigger story than anyone realized.
At the time of the shooting, the Bee had just finished its weekly edition, which included a front page story on how well Newtown schools were meeting state standards. To get the news of the shooting out, the newspaper relied on digital technology, although that didn't go entirely smoothly as the website wasn't used to the kind of traffic it was getting after the shooting and it crashed multiple times.
The newspaper decided to do a special edition on the incident, something that hasn't been done in its 135-year history.
The special edition had information on the shooting, but also feature stories on the shock, the grieving, the start of the healing process and other components. It covered the president's address, the amount of support pouring into Newtown from across the country, and world, as well as the onslaught of media coverage.
Updates continue to be posted on the newspaper's website. One of the more recent ones, as I write this column early due to the holidays, concerned the media onslaught.
The visiting media was so overwhelming that one local official told the Bee "the press is choking the life out of our Sandy Hook businesses" because they are working in areas that aren't designed for such an intense amount of use and traffic.
Another official noted that it is ironic that a staggering number of toys and gifts are flowing into the community, but the village's only toy shop could be pushed to the brink of closing because customers can't get access to either the store or parking during this crucial time for shopping.
Even the Bee got into the fray as officials and acquaintances of victims contacted the Bee pleading for the newspaper to appeal to its colleagues to take a few steps back from the proceedings. The Bee did that through the New England Newspaper and Press Association, which then sent out an appeal nationwide.
"As a professor of media ethics, I've never seen a situation where the local paper is appealing to the larger press establishment to monitor their behavior," said Steve Burgard, a former L.A. Times editor and now the director of the School of Journalism at Northeastern University. "But this is always a concern in situations where there is a big story and the media comes swarming."
I never want to be in the situation of covering a horrible incident such as a mass shooting. It would be overwhelming, not only for our resources, but for our emotions in dealing with senseless death in tight-knit communities.
However, looking on as an observer, it appears the Newtown Bee brought honor to our profession in the midst of a chaotic and emotionally-charged environment.
Although the incident will start to fade from such an intense point in the national consciousness, it will always remain a part of Newtown.
The newspaper realizes that and is already looking to the future. In an editorial, called "Answering for our town," the Newtown Bee expresses sentiments that could be delivered by any weekly newspaper that is such an integral part of the small communities throughout America.
"As to where we go from here, we answer, as always, that in setting our sights on the future, we take direction from our past. From the 300 years of Newtown's history, the community has inherited a legacy of independence of spirit, self-awareness and community action. People take care of each other here; there is 135 years of evidence of that in the pages of The Bee."