In the aftermath of last week’s massacre of 27 people at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, reporters from around the country and the world have descended on the small rural town in southwestern Connecticut. The result has been no small amount of conflict between the people who are trying to process the event that has devastated their community and the outsiders who are trying to tell their stories in words and pictures.
Two Daily Beast editors, Jesse Wegman and Harry Siegel, discuss the issue with two Daily Beast reporters, Michael Daly and Christine Pelisek, both of whom have spent several days on the ground in Newtown over the past week.
Jesse Wegman: It’s only been five days since the horrific school shooting in Newtown, and already the predictable cycle of media self-recrimination is in full bloom. My initial reaction to this sort of hand-wringing is that it is disingenuous. The Sandy Hook massacre is unquestionably the biggest news story in the country—arguably in the world—and it will remain so for days if not weeks to come. What do we do in this business but cover the news, when and where it is happening?
Of course it’s reasonable to talk about practicing basic human decency in this process, especially when the news begins to be less about the immediate facts of a terrible event and more about the aftermath of that event. I agree fully with those who are disgusted by reporters barging into funeral services and sticking their microphones and voice-recorders into mourners’ faces. But I think we can separate our abhorrence of such behavior from our obligation to cover the story as fully and as deeply as possible.
On an emotional level I understand why many residents of Newtown would like the media to leave. They have just experienced perhaps the most awful thing a community can experience, and they are consumed mostly with getting through it, as they should be. They have no obligation to talk to any of us in the press, and I don’t begrudge them their irritation or anger at us. But at the same time, their grief, their anger, the range of their human emotions—all of it is a part of this terrible story. If we declare that we won’t cover this out of “respect” for the grieving families, what are we really saying?
I’d much sooner be rid of the checkout-counter paparazzi, who truly produce no news value, than I would tell real working journalists to back off describing every aspect of one of the biggest and most complicated stories of the past several years. Gun violence includes many things, death and destruction among them, but it equally includes the grief of those left behind. It is our job to tell all of that, and at the same time, to treat the subjects of our stories like the vulnerable humans they are. I don’t think it’s hard to do both of these things at once.
It’s also true that I am sitting in a comfortable office 65 miles from where the action is, so I’m much more interested in hearing what Mick and Christine have to say about all this after several days reporting from Newtown.
Michael Daly: I just think that every reporter needs to be very clear exactly why he or she is standing outside a wake or knocking on a family’s door or calling a former classmate. Is the result likely to contribute to the reader’s knowledge and offer insight that is worth the intrusion on a town that has suffered such a loss? We need to be on the top of our game and make ourselves worthy of the First Amendment.
Harry Siegel: That’s exactly the right question.
But while Daly and others have produced work that lives up to that standard, much of our coverage—“our” as in both the press at large and the Beast in particular—has fallen short.
Writing off the criticism as “disingenuous” “hand-wringing” is just name-calling, an easy way to excuse bad and even outright grotesque behavior. With the web’s endless news hole, “full” and “deep” coverage is an elegant way of justifying rubbernecking at human suffering and fingering meaningless details—the Beast mapping the path the alleged shooter James Holmes took through the Aurora theater, for instance, or the Associated Press tracking down the barbers who cut Adam Lanza’s hair years ago. Actual lede:
“As a teenager, Adam Lanza would come in for a haircut about every six weeks without speaking or looking at anyone and always accompanied by his mother, said stylists at a salon.”
That’s news? Really? Does it in any way inform public discussion, or tell us anything of worth?
Jesse writes that the mourners “have no obligation to talk to any of us,” but that their grief, anger, despair is “part of this terrible story.” That’s true, but asking people who are caught up in the news to play by the same rules (“no obligation” implying it’s on them if they do) as people who ordinarily deal with the press isn’t a fair standard. Plus, how many reporters does it really take to document mourning?
Does the public’s right to know these people are heartbroken really demand dozens of photographers taking nearly identical shots, or reporters filling news holes? When the reporters outnumber the reported, it has a quantum effect, where they change the story by observing it.
Finally, Jesse says, “It is our job to tell all of that, and at the same time, to treat the subjects of our stories like the vulnerable humans they are.” Indeed. But he adds: “I don’t think it’s hard to do both of these things at once.”
No—it is hard, which is why we’re having this conversation. I’m not sure that what every journalist does is “morally indefensible,” as Janet Malcolm wrote, but I’m damn sure that it’s morally fraught.
We’re supposed to be after two things: the truth and a good story. The conceit we tell ourselves, and our reporters, is that those two things align. But if we make them do so on the page, we get to keep making a living. The reporters flooding the zone now will all pour out of it shortly, and that’ll be the last time they ever speak to the grievers they’ve been commiserating with and befriending and, oh, pressing for access these last few days. Their editors, though, will still be there—and we want good, clean copy we can get up quickly, and page views.
Christine Pelisek: To me it has always been about the truth and finding a good story. The shooting and its aftermath are absolutely important to cover; but while most journalists are respectful and decent, the few who are like vultures, who will do anything for a good story, make it difficult for the rest of us—not to mention the sources they prey on.
It is great when a person wants to talk, but you have to be respectful when they don’t. When I was in Newtown, I was told by a local that a TV crew showed up at midnight on the doorstep of a first responder and his wife, an elementary school teacher at Sandy Hook. As soon as the door opened, the TV crew started filming. That’s just so wrong. It is gotcha journalism and it is sleazy. They are no better than TMZ and Radar Online. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of these guys were hanging out in trees snapping photos of people grieving in their own homes.
MD: If we are covering this too much, we did not cover other shootings enough. I have been to the scene of maybe 100 shootings involving youngsters, and I can’t help but think that if we’d done our job back then, it would not have taken this present horror to get real talk about gun control.
JW: I’d hoped I was clear that I don’t defend or justify many of the tactics of more aggressive “journalists” who, as Christine illustrates, disregard not only people’s privacy expectations but basic human decency and sympathy in pursuing a scoop of questionable worth. I certainly agree with Harry on that point, but I think it’s a dangerous game to start asking so soon after a massive, traumatizing, and complex news event which “news” is worth reporting and which isn’t. You make it sound self-evident which parts of a huge story are worthy and unworthy of coverage, but who draws the line, and where?
To take your examples, what if James Holmes’s precise route was a crucial piece of evidence to the police, who then tipped off a reporter to that element of the investigation? Would you decide not to report it anyway? Or what if the interview with the barber ends up being a key piece in a much larger and fuller understanding of Adam Lanza’s personality disturbances? They call journalism a first draft of history for a reason: it’s a draft! And as with all drafts, there’s material that is critical to telling the story and material best left on the cutting-room floor…and it can take a while to sort it all out. But any writer will tell you that it’s better to have more information than less.
I’m not asking people who find themselves in the midst of an international story to play by the same rules as people who deal with reporters every day, but I also don’t think it’s unreasonable for reporters to try to get their stories, even if it means making an extra effort. Also, I don’t say this to criticize any of the residents of Newtown, but there are those there who are very aware of the power of the press and who have used it to help get stories disseminated. I think that’s a fine thing—we use them, they use us—and as long as everyone is respectful, it can have positive results.
Hearst’s quote to the effect that news is something that someone doesn’t want printed, and all else is advertising, is useful to remember. Obviously there’s not an issue of cover-up in a story such as the Newtown massacre—not that we know of, anyway—but it does point out the core paradox of this business. We are always confronted in this job with people who’d rather we go away. The fact that we don’t is exactly what makes people keep reading.