Newtown—on covering a massacre where you live | Bleader

Newtown—on covering a massacre where you live


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  • Renee Berger/AP Photos
Shannon Hicks, a reporter and photographer for the weekly Bee of Newtown, Connecticut, was perhaps the first journalist to arrive at the Sandy Hook Elementary School last December 14 to cover what turned out to be the massacre of 20 children and six adults. She took a picture of children leaving the school that showed up the next day on the front page of the New York Times, and a couple of weeks ago she served as the entree into Rachel Aviv's New Yorker story on the Bee's response to the massacre.

In typically understated New Yorker style, Aviv brought her report into focus with the following paragraph:

"After the second class had been evacuated, the education reporter came to retrieve the memory card from Hicks's camera, and Hicks went over to the Sandy Hook Volunteer Fire & Rescue Company, which had just arrived. She bunched up her knee-length skirt and pulled bunker pants over it, and put on boots, a turnout coat, and a helmet. With three other firefighters, she set up a triage area near the school's baseball field, laying out medical bags, collars, backboards, and stretchers."

Reporters don't commonly double as volunteer firefighters. Reporters don't commonly surrender their memory cards and stop reporting the biggest story of their career because of a volunteer obligation. What obligation—as any Chicago reporter would ask you—could possibly exceed serving the people’s right to know?

I read Aviv's article because someone in my book club, a retired Chicago homicide detective named Jim Hennigan, sent us all an e-mail recommending it. He explained in a later e-mail that Aviv's story interested him because it was about "how the practice of that craft [journalism] might complement one's membership in a community or be challenged by it."

This got me to thinking, and I wrote Hennigan back less to let him know my thoughts on the subject than to discover what they were. "Reporters have a way of thinking—really, feeling—themselves embedded in their communities rather than fully living in them," I began, tentatively. "But there's less philosophy to that attitude than innate personality. That's certainly true in my case . . . " I once wrote a long poem musing on what are, to me, interesting parallels between my people, the Swiss, who live in the middle of Europe but don't get involved, and my people, urban journalists, who aren’t much for getting involved either. The Swiss, I said in lines I offered Hennigan,

. . . . are the stock of Europe's heart,
Surrounded by passions, yet full apart.
Deficient in song and dance and art,
But Europe's analyst.

"Aren't police the same way?" I asked him. "Surely in some of these communities you patrol, you don't feel you live there! With us, as with you, there's good and bad to this. The Guardia Civil in Spain never served in their home provinces. It's hard to insist on being feared among neighbors. (I'm not saying cops insist on being feared, but there's certainly an element of that. And the press likes to think of itself in a swaggering deus ex machina way.)"

By that, I meant as a force that sweeps in, reports, and withdraws. Not to be feared, of course, but to be held in some awe.

Hennigan wrote back, "Yeah, there are obvious parallels with the cops here. Some prefer to work in their own ghettos, but even those who do often complain about the complicating factors, e.g., every car, kid, suspect, victim, etc., you encounter has or claims to have an immediate family member on the job. It's less confusing to be assigned to a community where you know that your place is outside of it. And fear, admit or like it or not, is a major tool, if not of the obvious physicality, then certainly of the possibilities of 'trouble.' Remember Crosby, Stills and Nash's 'Almost Cut My Hair'? Like that. Any psychological edge is worth considering.

"I've been thinking occasionally about this since just after 9/11 when there arose the issue as to whether TV newscasters should or should not wear American flag pins on their lapels. I wondered what kind of life it would be to feel professionally compelled to belong nowhere."

Nowhere? That was an overstatement.

"A lot of journalists, myself included, looked at this differently," I replied. "We felt journalists were being compelled to knuckle under to bellicose nationalism. Anyone who didn't wear his patriotism on his sleeve (or lapel) was presumed to have none. The absence of a flag pin was considered, by those who resisted wearing one, to express not a lack of personal allegiance to that flag but a professional allegiance to news that favored only truth. The flag isn't served by turning it into bling. Twelve years later, the flag pins persist, as does 'God Bless America' sung at baseball games. Patriotism has curdled into ritual.

"At moments like 9/11, journalists who do hold themselves apart feel less alienated than vindicated. What the nation needs now is news it can trust, we tell ourselves, and we have the temperament to provide it. I remember visiting Vietnamese refugee camps after Saigon fell in '75, and someone saying that if our misery was reported on the BBC the world would know it was true. I don't know whether after the London tube attacks of 2005 the BBC announcers on the telly donned Union Jack pins, but I'd like to think they didn't and perhaps you do too.”

Hennigan wrote back:

"I didn't fail to see the merits of the argument against the pins, nor of trying to professionally separate oneself from the things and people you examine. It more fits into with what or whom you identify, whatever work you do. We all, consciously or not, don flags of a sort, i.e., clothing, hairstyles, jewelry, etc., that give others clues to who we think we are. Maybe peer pressure dictates some of that. Maybe the same can be said for concealing those 'flags.' (Another pop culture reference: the Seinfeld episode wherein Kramer is bullied and pursued for refusing to wear an 'AIDS' pin though he is taking part in a march to raise AIDS awareness.) Obama has taken an awful lot of flak for not wearing a lapel pin on occasion and for holding his hands over his groin instead of over his heart. Much of it is silly partisanship, but maybe that's the point. Everyone wants to know where you stand, to what community you belong. Is it mine? If not, whose? As to Europe, there is much distress over head gear and face veils and it all has to do with just that. We disdain the primitive violence among Africans but that tribal notion is a deep seed, I think.

"I don't know that acknowledging one's nationality or citizenship is a bad thing, even for journalists. Being compelled to do so or to NOT do so is a much more offensive proposition, I think."

And there we left it.

At some point in this exchange I thought about "civic journalism," a 90s movement I never did exactly understand, perhaps because it may have been less a new way of doing journalism than it was a new way to think about the journalism we did. This 2002 Pew Center report on civic journalism describes it as journalism that presents public issues in an "explanatory" frame rather than in the old "conflict" frame in which opposing viewpoints whack away at each other, and that incorporates "new voices of citizens that simply would not have been otherwise heard." Resistant journalists tended to regard it as suspiciously touchy-feely; it retrospect, it was that ungainly beast—vox populi—first sticking its nose inside the tent. By now—thanks to blogs, social media, and the other paraphernalia of digital communications—the beast has made himself entirely at home in the tent and sent the ringmaster shinnying up the tent pole.

And I thought about Mike Fourcher, struggling to make a go of hyperlocal digital journalism, calling a community meeting to find out if anyone cared about what he was trying to do, and if they did, did they have any good ideas about how he could keep doing it?

Aviv tells that "like many local businesses, the Bee taped a card to its window that said, 'We Are Sandy Hook/We Choose Love,' in green and white, the school's colors." John Voket, the government reporter, "started wearing a green-and-white ribbon pinned to his shirt."


Voket "writes five or six articles a week," Aviv continues, "and considers them all part of one project, which is to chronicle the history of the town. . . . He didn't care if national reporters [about 200 journalists swept into town] thought that he lacked a 'hard-ass clinical angle.' When he learned that a camera crew had rung the doorbell of parents who had just lost their child, he wrote a letter to the New England Newspaper and Press Association, urging the media to stop 'invading the yards and space of grieving survivors.' Another resident implored him, 'Do anything in your power to get these media people out.'"

What was the agenda of the Bee? Aviv tells us editor Curtiss Clark "wanted the paper to draw the community together—to reclaim its routine," a task the outsiders inundating Newtown made "nearly impossible." Clark told readers, "We need to extract ourselves from the sticky amber that freezes things in time." This, of course, was the amber being poured over Newtown by the national press on behalf of the hundreds of millions of Americans who didn't live there. Newtown, said NBC's Brian Williams, is the "saddest place on earth."

Newtown is different from Chicago in scale, first of all, and secondly in that the tragedy that struck it came from out of nowhere. Chicago is notorious for its murder rate, particularly of schoolchildren, and no one claims this carnage is not without causes, and is not on the mayor, and the police, and the schools. But the press doesn't just report these deaths, it examines them; and when proposed antidotes come along from time to time it holds them up to the light and gives them a shake. Yet the Chicago press has been decrying violence in the streets for so long that this attentiveness may simply be our contribution to the amber.

Aviv tells us that Shannon Hicks's fire department unit out by the baseball field had almost nothing to do that morning, and by early afternoon Hicks was back in the Bee office. Since then, she's spent little time in the firehouse. Her editor, Curtiss Clark, hadn't wanted her to join the fire department in the first place—like many a much bigger paper, the Bee discourages joining—and now she's wondering if he was right. Newtown's firefighters have been hurting, she told Aviv. "We are trained to take care of people, and of course that never happened." Aviv added that that the town's police officers were similarly affected: several had taken time off since December 14 pleading emotional trauma, and one officer hadn't been back to work since.

Perhaps no calamity comes from out of nowhere—not in the hearts of those with a duty to prevent it. The fire and police forces of Newtown may feel they failed the community they belong to and swore to serve. Unstated in so many words by Aviv, but suggested by the story she tells, is that the press, the staff of the Bee, has coped better. Hennigan's question was whether the craft practiced by the Bee staff deepened or compromised their sense of themselves as members of a community. Whichever, it was a craft that gave them a role to play after the massacre. Thank God for having something useful to do!

UPDATE: I've heard from Shannon Hicks, who confirmed that she was the first journalist at the Sandy Hook school, in fact the only one who got close to the school in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. She added that she and John Voket would be better identified as associate editors of the Bee.


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