(Courtesy of newtownbee.com)
Coverage of tragedy and crime is arguably one of the most sensitive and difficult topics to explore in journalism. When done poorly, stories can exploit and stereotype victims and their families, all for the sake of a sensationalized dramatic tale that will boost ratings and do nothing to further truth or understanding. When done correctly, coverage can lead to a better-informed community and promote safety by clarifying what is and what is not acceptable behavior. Newtown Bee editor Curtiss Clark stated that, in terms of people’s interest in the Sandy Hook story, they needed “architecture to make sense of this randomness.” Journalists should provide this architecture in a thoughtful manner.
In “Coverage of Crime” by Melvin Coffee, the two sides of the crime debate are outlined with a focus on crime distortion and stereotyping. On the con side, Coffee examines how depiction of youth and racial crimes is unbalanced and also mentions the “copycat” effect, which is the idea that the more attention the media gives to the details of a crime the more likely a member of the community is to commit the same crime.
This concern was prevalent in the Sandy Hook shooting as Rachel Aviv mentions in her New Yorker article “Letter from Newtown: Local Story: A community newspaper covers a national tragedy.” Newtown Bee editor Curtiss Clark worried that by giving too much media coverage to shooter Adam Lanza and his methods the paper would be inadvertently giving troubled teens in the community similar ideas.
Excellent crime coverage is all about how you retrieve and interpret the information. Aviv’s articled mentioned how some outside reporters arrived in Newtown and took the approach of ringing the doorbells of the grieving families. I definitely agree with Clark that bothering parents who have just lost their child to get a good story is exploitation and a step too far. Journalists should be acutely aware of not crossing this line, as there comes a time when we must respect privacy and help the public discard the idea that we are their enemies.
Another aspect of reporting crime that deserves a significant amount of attention is self-care for journalists. We think of the people who experienced the horrific events as the only ones in need in help, but in fact, journalists who become intimately involved with these stories can be forever scarred and traumatized. Aviv’s article mentions how in one sad case a reporter who wrote about the Columbine shooting had to quit her journalist career and work at a coffee shop because she was so traumatized by the events. In this area, The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma seems to do an excellent of job of improving the coverage of crime while also making sure not to neglect the health of the journalists themselves.
In conclusion, I think it is crucial to note how Aviv’s article stresses that Newtown will forever be changed by this tragedy and the newspaper that writes for that community will forever be grappling with this change as it struggles to redefine its purpose. In the weeks after the tragedy, Bee editor Clark made a conscious effort to focus coverage on the positive outcomes that were happening as a result of the tragedy in order to keep a broken community delicately intact. With national media flooding the town and the entire country watching closely, the paper could have faltered and ultimately crumbled, but after reading this article, I think this newspaper fulfilled its journalistic duties under the most unimaginable of circumstances.
My favorite quote from editor Clark in the article is from the section that details his struggle with the plethora of gifts and kind words the paper received. He felt, “Like he was being hugged repeatedly by an eight-hundred-pound gorilla. You feel the love, but you end up walking around with cracked ribs. It hurts.”