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April 24, 2013, 3:05 p.m.

Wrong narratives may outweigh wrong facts, but reporting with respect means getting both right

A discussion on reporting in traumatic situations — “Sandy Hook and Beyond” — highlights the gaps in perception between those being covered and those doing the covering.

Lieutenant J. Paul Vance has learned a lot about the media in his 13 years as a spokesman for the Connecticut State Police. Vance was the point man for police information during the mass shootings at Sandy Hook in December 2012.

For the most part, Vance says the reporters who covered the unfolding aftermath of those events “really got it.” But there was one photojournalist who Vance felt failed to fully understand the CPD’s request that journalists respect the families of Newtown in their time of grief.

“And I said, ‘If he doesn’t leave, make sure he abides by every single law you can think of that’s on the books in the state of Connecticut. If he’s walking on the roadway, that’s dangerous, he’s going to get himself hurt. If he’s parked illegally, that’s just unacceptable if we’ve got to get an ambulance or a fire truck through.’ I said, ‘Please make him understand,'” said Vance. “He left.”

The people of Newtown are not huge fans of journalists at the moment. That much became clear during Monday’s panel on breaking news reporting and trauma, co-hosted by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism and the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma.

Vance spoke alongside community leaders, psychiatrists and both local and national journalists. And given the timing of the event, it would be impossible not to discuss last week’s Boston bombings — and it would be foolish to waste an opportunity to try and think about what lessons from Connecticut can be applied to the still developing, albeit cooled, situation in Boston.

Patricia Llodra is the first selectman of Newtown. In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, she was surprised at the defiant response of some journalists to her request that they gather in a remote area and wait for information. Today, she says she still gets calls from constituents asking her if she can force the media to leave them alone. Charles Herrick, chairman of the Western Connecticut Health Network’s Department of Psychiatry, said he believes the ongoing attention of the press with the Sandy Hook has “slowed the recovery” of the community.

Short-term errors and long-term narratives

In the reporting of a crisis like this, there are two stages — the breaking news and the investigative work that follows. As we’ve learned the hard way, breaking news in the age of widespread, instant digital publishing (a.k.a. Twitter) can make it incredibly difficult for traditional news organizations to reliably report accurate information. But in the eyes of most of Monday’s panelists, the immediate reporting of the Sandy Hook shooting was much less erroneous than the ongoing coverage of Boston’s two-day bombing and manhunt.

After Sandy Hook, false reports included an inaccurate name for the shooter, the possibility of a second shooter, and the widespread belief that the shooter’s mother was a teacher at the school. The situation in Boston, as has been much discussed, was more egregious, with front page reports of 12 dead, suspects in custody, and more than one case of a misidentified suspect. Andy Carvin, social media strategist for NPR, says a Moroccan boy who was publicly accused by some Reddit users is now afraid to go to school. “His parents are afraid someone is going to show up and shoot him,” Carvin said. (Reddit general manager Erik Martin has since apologized for what he calls a “witch hunt.”)

Carvin spends a lot of time thinking about how to stymie rumors online — in part because of the frequent criticism he receives for his decision to respond to rumors online rather than ignore them. But, Carvin says, “my Twitter account is different from other news Twitter accounts.” He sees his feed as a newsroom, not a newswire, and believes as its editor, it’s his job to communicate with sources, asking them for verification and challenging them when isn’t any. Carvin describes his work as an attempt to slow down the rumor mill by directly telling his followers to wait for confirmation. “I’m holding back 75 percent of what I’m hearing,” he said.

Carvin argued if there were a figure on Reddit who had the credibility and journalistic training that he employs on Twitter, it’s possible that rumors there could have been quelled before making their way into the mainstream media. “I’ve been very interested in starting a journalism subreddit where NPR staff can hang out with redditors and talk about breaking news, and tell them when they’re doing a good job and when they’re being counterproductive and dangerous,” Carvin says. (ProPublica recently started a subreddit, although with slightly different aims.) Overall, Carvin called for many more journalists to do the work of helping the public become more informed by guiding them towards the truth.

In Connecticut, however, there were many other factors that helped tamp down the unmitigated flow of unverified information. Lt. Vance gave out his personal cellphone number to reporters, and instructed them only to trust information that came from him. “If it didn’t have my name attached to it, then consider it suspect. Consider it questionable.” Vance said he also held press conferences every 90 minutes, not only so he could dispense new information, but also so that he could hear the rumors and dispel them when necessary.

A clash of cultures

Of course, most reporters don’t appreciate that kind of restriction of information; editors on the panel spoke of encouraging employees to get out into the community and talk to people. “The person at the press conference is in a bit of a vacuum,” said Naomi Starobin, news director at WSHU Public Radio in nearby Fairfield. Starobin said in the first few days after the shooting, her reporters would be woken at 3 a.m. by calls from all across the country, asking if certain reports were true. Starobin said she felt her primary responsibility was to use the station’s resilient on-the-ground network to factcheck what they heard.

But for community leaders in Newtown, the press was simply not a priority when it came to informing the public. Selectman Llodra said she relied heavily on robocalls, a tactic originally used during weather emergencies, to let citizens know what was going on. Principal Charles Dumais of Newtown High School, also a panelist, was praised for his forward-thinking use of both his personal blog and school blog in fostering a place for communication, information, and healing. “Part of our job in communicating does not have to do with the news,” he said, “A big part of that message is in the tone and in the delivery.”

More than once, these community leaders pointed out to their audience that small towns and public high schools do not employ communications directors and are not equipped to deal with the endless scrutiny of the national media. But a city like Boston is a place that millions of people feel a personal connection to. “Everyone is talking to everyone immediately,” Carvin says. “The chatter just explodes.”

Carvin compared the Boston bombings to his experience using Twitter to cover the Arab Spring. Since his American audience doesn’t know much about Egypt, there was a lot less talking and a lot more listening, Carvin said. But Carvin scoffs at anyone who thinks the firehose of speculation that is the Internet is going away. Instead, he says, journalists should prepare for a future of mediating that chatter: “You have to be comfortable opening yourself up, admitting what you know and what you don’t know, and being a good listener,” he’s says. “That’s not the way that journalism has worked in the past.”

But Dave Cullen, the author of Columbine, said, despite the current climate, it’s the way the media reports in the weeks and months that follow a violent tragedy that matters most. “Narrative has staying power,” Cullen said. “Spurious facts? Details? No. There’s much less lasting danger from facts than from when you start connecting them and drawing conclusions and putting a reason behind it too soon.”

For journalists writing about Sandy Hook, some of those opportunities have already passed. Fingers were pointed at those who said the shooter’s mother was a doomsday prepper, glossing over other, more nuanced clues to his unravelling. (Hartford Courant reporter Alaine Griffin is still working to learn more about why the shooter dropped out of school so frequently, and why he cut off communication with his father in 2010.)

“I haven’t always treated people well”

But for Boston, there is still time to achieve what Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center, dubbed “narrative justice.” The event highlighted the work of Jim MacMillan, a former newspaper photojournalist who founded, a blog with a staff of around five. They make it their mission to present tragic portraits of gun violence in Philadelphia. MacMillan says the most important difference between what he does now and what he used to do is in the way his journalists communicate with people in the field.

“I’ve made mistakes due to competitive pressures. I haven’t always treated people well. But if we consider our responsibilities to everyone we cover, it results in better journalism,” he said. Rather than pouncing on victims with cameras blazing, MacMillan says his colleagues try to approach them with condolences and explain their mission. As a result, they are frequently invited to funerals, to memorials, and into the lives of the victims they are working to portray.

MacMillan acknowledges that suffering is hard to monetize, and further says that in a city like Philadelphia, where gun deaths are frustratingly common, it’s hard to justify calling each fresh incident news. But there is a future for social journalism, MacMillan says, and for “collaboration across communities to tell real stories.”

Tragedies like the school shooting at Sandy Hook and the bombings in Boston are an opportunity for local news organizations, however stretched and strapped, to recommit to those communities. The power of a journalist’s training isn’t in the medium, but in the respect and diligence in the reporting they do. Kevin Cullen, columnist at The Boston Globe, estimates that the paper had over 60 reporters out on the street after the bombings. “You’re part of the community,” he said. “You’re not just coming in with a legion of people wearing makeup and attaching microphones. When you live in a community, you treat people differently, and they treat you differently.”

And Jacqueline Smith, managing editor of the Danbury News Times, who is a few months ahead of Boston in thinking about the role that the media plays after a tragedy, said “How does a community redefine itself? The role of the paper is to help that. To keep informing, keep pushing, and keep prodding.”

Photo by Craig used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     April 24, 2013, 3:05 p.m.
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