Hoping a new media sensitivity might emerge from the Newtown tragedy

Editor’s note: This is a preview of a story that appears in the winter 2014 print edition of Gateway Journalism Review.

Soon after tragedy struck a sleepy New England town more than one year ago, residents of Newtown, Ct., vowed the place they called home would be an epicenter for change. There needed to be changes in gun laws, some cried out. Others advocated for a national movement to increase school security. A need for better mental health counseling became a topic of conversation in homes and coffee shops among the town’s 26,000 residents.

More subtle and in the undertones, there also were pleas for Newtown to be the epicenter of change in how stories of mass shootings and grief are covered.

Just as the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting has generated discussion about gun laws and school safety, how the tragedy was covered should also be a topic of discussion and review among media outlets, journalism organizations and in academia. There are so many lessons to learn in how journalists can still do their job while maintaining decency, credibility and sensitivity, but the year following the tragedy has shown there is little interest in the topic. So while there should be a Newtown effect in journalism, that sadly has not been the case.

There were no mea culpas about the inaccurate reporting that occurred as the Sandy Hook story was unfolding. It was reported the shooter was a parent of a kindergarten student. He was not. It was reported the killer’s mother was a teacher at the school. She was not. The killer was misidentified. It was reported the killer once attended the school, but lived in New Jersey with his father. Only one part of that report was correct. Those are just a few of the inaccuracies reported as fact. Connecticut State Police did not have an official press conference for nearly six hours after the shooting, so reporters on the scene were fed information from their collective newsrooms and social media. Without confirmation, those tidbits were presented as gospel until the newest tidbit of information was presented. No one apologized for the misinformation.

A similar scenario was repeated five months later at the Boston Marathon bombing. The need for speed outweighed the importance of accuracy. Clearly, nothing was learned from Newtown.

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