Monday, December 17, 2012

on newtown

The Danbury News-Times broke the news on Saturday that one of the victims of the Newtown, CT, school shooting was 30-year-old substitute teacher Lauren Rousseau. The police had yet to release the names of all 27 people killed in Adam Lanza’s rampage. But Rousseau’s mother, Terri, is a News-Times copy editor.

Terri's colleague, Bob Miller, wrote the story. Bob is also a childhood friend of Terri’s longtime partner, Bill Leukhardt, a reporter at the Hartford Courant. Lauren Rousseau lived with him and Terri.

At the Courant, Bill was my first internship editor, back in 2006, and has since remained a caring mentor and friend. And Bob and I covered Ridgefield, a nearby community similar to Newtown, at the same time, so we spent hours at nighttime municipal meetings trading sarcastic quips sotto voce, as reporters do. Newtown is a story that is being covered by journalists I care about and one that affects people I know.

This is all to say, this is not a tragedy where I can form an abstract, theoretical critique about how the media covered the story beyond thoughts that reporters should stop sending unconfirmed information into the social media/Buzzfeed echo chamber (Ben Smith added insult to injury when he penned a mea culpa for spreading early misinformation that basically said, “We reported it because everyone else was, too”). 

And I can’t hand kudos to well-argued coverage that leaped straight to a broader argument about gun control, because it used the tragedy as a convenient news peg. This shooting should not be co-opted as a pawn in various political arguments (besides gun control, my Twitter feed—mostly journalists and feminists—have been discussing lack of easy access to mental health services). Because though the tragedy has spurred conversation and garnered international attention, and national outlets are swooping in to try conveying a sense of “We are all Newtown,” that isn’t true.

This is a local story in a small state, and the definitive coverage has been produced by journalists who have spent careers cultivating sources while raising their families here. The Wall Street Journal’s coverage includes sizable contributions from seasoned Connecticut political reporter Ted Mann. Thomas Kaplan, whose tweet is quoted above, interned at the Hartford Courant. Bill was helping cover the story before he knew that his relative was among the victims.

That sustained attention develops an understanding that doesn’t come from “covering the story the entire day,” as Brian Williams said of a couple NBC colleagues during a broadcast. A whole day? Someone give Ann Curry and friends a cupcake. Or maybe a slap, for creating a media zoo around a small, traumatized community. (Buzzfeed: “[W]e now wish we had sent a reporter to Newtown instantly, which might have allowed us to close the loop between our online reporting and the original police sources.” Please don’t.)   

This is not meant to be a paean for dying local newspapers. Newtown Patch did a perfectly serviceable job covering the story; the most experienced local journalists here just happen to be those who learned their craft on paper rather than in pixels. But it is a plea: When tragedy hits a small place, don’t rush in and presume to write about how things are—Newtown doesn’t need an imposed narrative nor, in the short term, outsider analysis. There was a bloodbath in an elementary school. Lauren Rousseau is never coming home. Don’t turn her into pageview fuel or a gun-control talking point.

(See also: Megan Greenwell's related thoughts)

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