Longtime Hartford Courant reporter Bill Leukhardt lives in Danbury, the town adjacent to Newtown, CT. So on December 14, when it became clear that something was amiss at a school there, his editors gave him the address on the scanner asked him to look into it.
“No one said Sandy Hook school—I had no idea,” said Leukhardt (who, full disclosure, was my first internship editor and remains a dear friend). “When I got there, I realized, this is where Lauren teaches.” Lauren was Leukhardt’s stepdaughter, Lauren Rousseau, 30, who died alongside five colleagues and 20 students at Sandy Hook Elementary School when Adam Lanza went on a shooting rampage there. Leukhardt told his story at the prompting of Dart Center executive director Bruce Shapiro on Monday, part of a daylong series of conversations, “Sandy Hook and Beyond.” The symposium was co-organized at Columbia’s Journalism School by its Dart and Tow Centers.
At first, Leukardt continued, there was a rumor that a custodian had shot himself in the foot, and he remembered hoping that Lauren, a substitute teacher, wasn’t too traumatized by the incident. “Within a half an hour or so, it was clear that this was not the story.” He left, concerned about covering an event that could involve a relative. It wasn’t until 1am that he and Lauren’s mom officially learned that she was among the dead.
Leukhardt found himself sought out by reporters, a complete reversal of the usual order wherein he wielded the notebook. His takeaway from being source rather than journalist was similar to that of many other panelists who spoke throughout the day—from Newtown First Selectwoman Pat Llodra to longtime CT State Police spokesman Lt. J. Paul Vance. It was this: “Kindness is what really resonates with families in crisis,” he said. “There might be worse times than this, but I can’t imagine what they might be … If someone says, ‘I’d rather not talk with you,’ don’t pester them.”
It’s a lesson that speakers also extended to residents in Boston and in Watertown, MA, in the wake of the fatal Boston Marathon bombings and the subsequent manhunt for the suspects. The raw events formed a subtext for the day’s discussion, and the final panel included Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen.
Of the media back in Newtown, Lt. Vance said, “Every single one of them treated this horrific tragedy with respect and dignity.” Journalists left this positive impression even while descending on the hamlet of Sandy Hook in such numbers that, Llodra said, businesses disrupted by the gridlock have yet to recover four months later. Llodra became the de facto spokeswoman for the town, and Vance became the keeper of updates about the shooting. He said that he told reporters not to trust information about the scene that didn’t have his signature attached and to await his his regular press conferences at the designated location. Each victim’s family was also assigned a police officer, partly to keep a member of law enforcement between them and the media.
Of course, staying within assigned areas goes against a journalist’s DNA; we know that the best stories come from wandering afield, talking to everyone, and trying to piece events into a narrative.
“We’re not going to get all the truth that way; we’re just going to get the official statements,” said Jacqueline Smith, managing editor of the Danbury News-Times, where Lauren’s mother works. The paper, she said, must “keep informing, keep pushing and prodding—the investigative part of the story as well as the human part.” But it’s one thing to be a lone reporter or a familiar local news outlet, and quite another to form a gantlet of news cameras opposite a church like the one I witnessed at Lauren’s funeral.
While some panelists said reporters should respect people’s grief, others noted that showing compassion and having reporting access aren’t mutually exclusive. Courant journalist Matthew Kauffman (another friend) said that he was recently asked if all those journalists really needed to be in Newtown in the aftermath of the shootings. “I imagined the scene at the firehouse immediately afterward, with these terrified parents,” Kauffman said. “All of that must have been scary and traumatic. But nobody would say, ‘Do we really need that many cops on the scene there? Could you put the helicopters away?’” He continued, “I make sort of a modest proposal that in a tragedy like this, the media has a role to play as well … Journalists, to some extent, should be seen as first responders as well.”
And like local cops and firefighters, who respond to incidents on Day One and then remain connected because they live and work there, local reporters get the opportunity to write the meaty stories after the mainstream media pack scurries after the next siren. The Courant ran a profile series on victim families, like this one Kauffman wrote about the Bardens, who created a Facebook page that encourages people to spread the joy they found within their son, Daniel. (The New Yorker also wrote a deep dive on the role of the local paper, the Newtown Bee.)
Beyond treatment of grieving families and traumatic events’ aftermath, the press has the power to shape discussion in broader ways, panelists said. Kauffman said that journalists must learn the complexities of the post-Newtown gun control debate to cover it well. “I think it’s more divisive than abortion. I think it’s more divisive than equality for gays and lesbians,” he said. Psychiatrist Charles Herrick suggested that reporters should tread carefully when mentioning mental illness or developmental disorders, because having a diagnosis—shooter Adam Lanza reportedly had Asperger’s Syndrome—is not a red flag for committing violence. “It’s impossible [for clinicians] to be able to predict these things,” he said. And Llodra said that she sees the press as holding the ability to help Newtown heal.
“You hold our future a little bit in your hands, so please treat us gently,” she said. “Treat us with care.”