When Does Reporting Become Rubbernecking?

December 20, 2012

Last Saturday, I drove up to Danbury, Ct. to pick up my husband, who’d been covering the story in Newtown. The Danbury LaQuinta is eight miles from Sandy Hook Elementary School, and part of me wanted to swing by and just take a look. It’s human nature to slow down when there’s sorrow on the other side of the road. And it’s journalist nature to want to take part in the biggest story of the moment. Even when we don’t want to, we want to.

But we didn’t drive to Newtown and I didn’t bring it up. It would have added at least half an hour to this three-hour round-trip. But that wasn’t the reason. And it wasn’t because I couldn’t bear the sadness; I’d listened to the story all the way up. The reason was that Newtown didn’t need one more journalist gawking at its tragedy, and whatever iPhone pictures I might have taken would have added nothing to the coverage.

The Newtown story will go strong right up to Christmas, and the press mob will continue huge. But we have the basic shape of the story now. We knew how big it was on Friday when the story suddenly and incomprehensibly went from shooter dead and somebody shot in the foot to 27 dead, most of them children. By Saturday night, we knew the names. Now, most of the story takes place in our imagination anyway: it’s what happens internally when we apply empathy to the facts and momentarily imagine the grief as our own. Before we pull back like we’ve touched the stove.

Now imagine this: you are the parent of a slain child, and you are trying to pull your life together and there are satellite trucks and microphones and big-time journalists and roadblocks and traffic everywhere. Or just don’t imagine it. Listen to the people of Newtown who have told the media directly, “You are making our nightmare worse.

I’m not saying that all the press should go away. There is still a big story in Newtown to report. Nor do I agree with the notion, offered by David Brooks on All Things Considered Friday afternoon and Steve Buttry in his blog, that the media should refrain from naming gunmen, because it just feeds the desire of copycats to go out in a bright blaze of infamy. A mass shooting isn’t a story you can just ignore, and identity of the gunman is part of it.

But I am saying that most of the press should go away.

I suggested this to my husband right after we watched Obama at the Sunday vigil in Newtown. We debated whether it should happen, and then whether it could happen — my husband taking the view that the press wouldn’t stand for it. Then a few hours later, I saw a story with the same suggestion on Romenesko: Media Should Combine Forces in Newtown, Says an Ex-Tabloid Reporter.

The writer, who asked to remain unnamed, said he was embarrassed and distressed by the “crush of reporters that’s descended upon any living, breathing, intelligent person in the Connecticut town that could offer a morsel of information about the tragedy that transpired.”

There’s been all kinds of reprehensible behavior in the aftermath of this tragedy, from the misidentification of the suspect to the shoving of microphones in the faces of traumatized children. But what’s most unsettled me is the sheer number of reporters that have converged on the area, and the way that their presence creates redundancy, duplication of effort, and unnecessary stress on victims and area residents in the form of swarms and stakeouts.

He suggested pool coverage — something news organizations are used to when it comes to covering big stories in tight quarters — and asked if  ”editors or managers of big city newspapers could come together to organize a system like this?”

I think we can. The NJ News Commons was founded under just such a notion. We may have been thinking about the waste of journalistic capital that routinely takes place when limited reporting resources chase the same story, rather than the privacy of victims in a mass shooting, but the principle still applies. It’s the same principle that the AP was founded on. When it makes sense, we can share. And the NJ News Commons embeddable feed, which allows news organizations to embed the posts of their peers, is a first step in this direction. In fact, the same platform that powers our feed, Repost.us, has plenty of stories from AFP, Christian Science Monitor and Global Post about what’s going on in Newtown available right now, embeddable on any news site, ripe for the taking. For free.

Will it be easy? No. It is still instinctive to people running newsrooms to want their own mic flags on the podium, especially when the news is as big as Newtown. But as I watched Obama at that memorial service, I felt that perhaps the sheer magnitude of the horror might make Newtown a turning point in American history, like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire was a century ago.

Just as I hope that champions of the second amendment can look hard at their politics, I hope that we champions of the first amendment can look hard at ourselves. We just can’t continue to descend like locusts on grieving communities. Not and remain human. Not without significant backlash from our own readers, listeners, viewers and advertisers.

Can we organize a system of pool reporting for tragedies? Can we at least have a conversation about it? I’m willing to try. Who will join me?

Debbie Galant is a regular contributor to the Dodge blog on media issues. She is the Director of the New Jersey News Commons at Montclair State University. For more information, visit the NJ News Commons website, and follow NJ News Commons on Twitter @NJNewsCommons.

This blog post was reprinted with permission.