behind the news

Covering Sandy Hook, one year later

The town is asking reporters to stay away, but many victims' families have started speaking out
December 12, 2013

As the one-year anniversary of the Sandy Hook school shooting approaches, the first selectman of Newtown, CT, Pat Llodra, has sent a very clear message to reporters: Stay away.

By last week, locals had noticed that TV news trucks had already started showing up, and this Monday, the town held a press conference in which local officials and families of the shooting victims reiterated that they’re hoping for the day to be quiet and private. Not all the messages to the media have been so diplomatic, however: The Rachel Maddow Show found a sign, for instance, that told the “vulture media” to “please leave.”

Most media outlets are respecting these requests, to a point. USA Today, which has been consistently covering the story, said it would not be reporting from the town on December 14, and of the big broadcasters, CNN, ABC, and NBC have all said they will not be there. (CBS told The New York Times it plans to have “the smallest footprint possible.”)

On Monday, the families pointed reporters to My Sandy Hook Family, a site they created “to honor our loved ones in a way that feels right to each individual family.” Most of the names link to pictures and stories of the people killed, and many point the way to other sites and organizations set up to honor them individually. But not all of the families offered more information; one says simply, “Thank you for respecting our privacy.”

For one day, December 14, that’s a simple enough ask. Reporters–and local reporters in particular–have developed relationships with people in Newtown and don’t need to drop in on Saturday in order to put together a story that’ll be published in connection with the one-year anniversary.

Last year, 200 or so journalists traveled to Newtown to cover the shootings, and their presence was overwhelming. “Everyone was carrying a TV camera or a microphone. Everyone seemed to be a reporter,” says Craig LeMoult, who’s been covering the story all year, as a reporter for WSHU, an NPR affiliate based in Fairfield, about a 25-minute drive from Newtown. The families of the victims were fielding interview requests from reporters who’d walk up to their doors or who’d send flowers with their contact info in the card. “I had not interviewed any of those victim families, because I wasn’t going to call them and no one at the station was going to call them,” says Lemoult.

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But as time passed and reporters remained interested, both town leaders and the victims’ families were able to take more control of how they wanted their story told. By February, when the White House announced that the six adults who were killed would receive Presidential Medals of Citizenship, some of the families had joined with other community members to form a group called Sandy Hook Promise. Lemoult reached out to the group’s contact person (who wasn’t a victim) and said that, while he didn’t want to call the families, if any of them wanted to talk about the people receiving the medal, he would love to tell their story. He got two calls.

Since then, he’s heard from other families, too, some of whom now want to talk, at the right time, to reporters. “What’s happened over the year is that some of the families in one way or another grabbed onto different causes,” Lemoult says. “They’ve formed their own organizations or become advocates for certain issues, and they want to use the media to share this message they think is important. The media is a tool for them.”

But the back and forth between the community and reporters has been complicated over the past few months, as reporters looked to access documents, like 911 recordings and death certificates, that many people in the town preferred to keep out of the public eye.

“Things that have always been public, we’ve have to fight tooth and nail to get, and some of it we still haven’t gotten,” says Dave Altimari, an investigative reporter at the Hartford Courant, who’s been covering the investigation into the shootings. The state police report and police dispatch tapes still haven’t been made public, he says. Last week the Newtown Police Department released recordings of 911 calls made during the shooting, but only after a Connecticut judge ordered it. Earlier this year, a group of Newtown parents asked the legislature to pass a bill that would have banned the release of the 911 tapes, as well as the victims’ death certificates. The final version of bill did restrict access to photos and recordings related to the case.

“I have heard from some families that ‘We don’t want this stuff to come out, why are you guys pushing this?'” says Altimari. “But it’s about more than one case. This is going to alter the FOI landscape, and not for the good in many cases.”

The Associated Press has been working on making these documents public, too: The newswire filed the legal challenge to have the 911 tapes released. “It’s important to remember, though, that 911 tapes, like other police documents, are public records,” Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll told AP reporters. “Reviewing them is a part of normal newsgathering in a responsible news organization.” The organization is planning on sending reporters to Newtown this Saturday, too, but is emphasizing that the coverage will be “respectful.”

“AP plans provide respectful coverage on Saturday,” spokesman Paul Colford wrote in an email, and noted that the AP has “an obligation to report on how Newtown is coming together to mourn and heal.” On Twitter, New England Bureau Chief Bill Kole wrote that the AP would be in Newtown on Saturday “for coverage with sensitivity and respect, not for exploitation.”

Sarah Laskow is a writer and editor in New York City. Her work has appeared in print and online in Grist, Good, The American Prospect, Salon, The New Republic, and other publications.