Wick Communications

On that fateful day

In journalism on 15 Mar 2013 at 9:40 am


In the March 4 edition of The New Yorker is an amazing story of the Newtown Bee and its role in coverage of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. It is really a must-read for those of us in community newspapers. (The digital edition requires a subscription. You can probably get it at the local library.)

It’s written by Rachel Aviv and she nails the sometimes precarious feeling we get as members of the community and as a staff of a newspaper.

It opens with the fateful morning of Dec. 14, 2012. Reporter/photographer Shannon Hicks came to work thinking about the catered Christmas party later that day … then she heard the voices on the police scanner. There was something going on at the school. Hicks thought it might be a domestic situation. She ran to the school and her first photo was of a young police officer, William Chapman, hurrying from the school with a child in his arms. From Aviv’s story:

Through the lens of her camera, (Hicks) watched as Chapman, only a few strides from the ambulance, fell to the ground, apparently losing strength. She saw that the child’s face had lost color, and knew then that she would never publish the photographs she was taking.

It’s possible to put yourself in Hicks’ shoes. How do we cover news like that without alienating the people who are our neighbors? …

I think Hicks provides us a perfect role model. In addition to her work with the newspaper, she is a volunteer firefighter in Newtown. As soon as she had done all she could do with her camera, and had the memory card carried back to the office, she put on her firefighters’ turnout pants and went to work staging the area for emergency responders.

The photo she took that did run – not only in her own paper but just about everywhere else – shows school staff leading children out of the building. The kids were told to close their eyes and hold on to one another. She said she thought of the 14 sets of parents who would see the picture online and know their kids were OK.

I think the photo finds an effective balance. It isn’t graphic. It conveys the urgency of the situation. It’s a powerful shot.

As Hicks says, the photo didn’t please everyone. Even with the best of intentions, some in the community will think you are sensationalizing this terrible moment. Aviv’s story speaks of a reporter from a community newspaper in Columbine, Colo., who got out of the profession after hard feelings there.

I can’t imagine a tougher thing to cover, but here’s how I would go about it.

  • Get people in position. First thing is first. You can’t make tough calls until you are first on the scene and are ready to break news online.
  • Make sure an editor sees that initial copy. It’s tempting to empower your people in the field to use mobile tools to get stories up immediately. I absolutely think reporters should tweet photos and short news breaks. But I would want to see that 10-inch story before it goes out. After the staff gets the tone right, they may be able to do it themselves.
  • Seek out people you know. The Sheriff’s captain, the school principal, the mayor. Let them know you have no intention of breaking their trust, only telling people what they need to know. Seek to convince them you are not going to run photos of dying school children. In fact, they should already know that.
  • Talk it over. If something makes you queasy, talk it over with your editor, your publisher, the ad reps – find me. Don’t be in such a hurry you publish something you regret.
  • Don’t be pushed around. Assert your First Amendment rights. Don’t sit around behind barricades a mile away until the New York Times gets there and eats your lunch.

— Clay


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