A couple of editorial cartoons that arrived in my inbox this week caused me to stop and think.
The first showed vultures — identified as ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, FOX and MSNBC — circling the town of Newtown, Conn., and Sandy Hook Elementary School. The second was a crowd of reporters shouting inane and insensitive questions to two obviously grieving parents.
I’m sure that’s the way the media appeared to a lot of folks as the tragedy in Newtown unfolded last week. And the impressions are somewhat justified.
One of the casualties of the 24/7 news business — created by the Internet and all news networks — is caution and reason. Not only were there errors in the early reporting of the tragedy, but some media people went too far in pursuit of a story. Reporters shouldn’t continually interrupt grieving families and interviewing children on camera about such a tragedy shouldn’t happen. The media also has to recognize that when such a tragedy occurs, the mere numbers of media that descend on a community requires all to act with compassion and dignity.
But there are also instances where the media can appear to be intruding, but actually perform a service.
The common perception is that the family and friends of victims want to be left to grieve alone. That’s often the case and those wishes should be respected. But there are also times when the families of victims want their story to be told.
At my first daily newspaper job, reporters were required to routinely call the victims’ families and ask to speak about whatever tragedy had occurred. The practice of police or medical examiners informing the next of kin was more lax in those days. It happened rarely, but there were a few times when a reporter was the person who informed the family their loved one had died. Thankfully, that doesn’t happen any longer.
Along with the other reporters, I made several of these calls. Everyone dreaded being assigned the task. My method was to make the call, make sure they understood who I was and to be as sympathetic and polite as possible. I always gave the family the option of talking then, or maybe calling back later.
Some families didn’t appreciate the calls. Many simply hung up the phone and I didn’t call them back. Others cursed first, called me names and then hung up. It’s a good lesson to remember — everyone expresses themselves differently in times of grief.
But there were also several families who either at that moment, or the next day, took the opportunity to tell the victims’ side of the story. Some invited us into their homes and shared photo albums and other remembrances. Often the family wanted their loved one remembered for something other than being a crime victim.
It’s also important for the public to learn that victims have a story and are more than just names in a story.
There have been media excesses in the coverage of the Sandy Hook tragedy. At the same time, there has been responsible reporting that has made many of us remember that the 20 children who were killed were individuals.
One of the Sandy Hook children, Daniel Barden, 7, was remembered this way: “Daniel was a boy who earned his missing front teeth and the rips in his jeans.”
That type of reporting makes Daniel, and the other children, more than just tragic victims.