Ten days before Christmas Eve and on the one-year anniversary of the slaughter in two first-grade classrooms, Newtown became a sort of Who-ville. The media – viewed by a most people here in the once- sleepy town as an evil, callous Grinch – showed that, perhaps, it does have a heart after all.
Unlike the previous year when the media descended on the town to cover the horrific incident and camera crews camped out for more than a week, and unlike the first day of school when the surviving children returned to classrooms in another school, and unlike the start of the new school year in September, and unlike the day the state released its 44-page summary on its investigation into the shooting, and unlike the day the 911 tapes were released, and unlike the days crews arrived to demolish the school, and unlike many, many other days, the media stayed away on Dec. 14, 2013.
The quiet day was a much-appreciated gift to the town.
In weeks prior to the anniversary, town officials casually asked the press corps to stay away so the town could have time for grieving and reflection. Several days before the anniversary, a formal request was made at a press conference. The CBS affiliate in Hartford was the first to announce that while it would report on the anniversary, it would not report from town. Soon thereafter, media outlets, both print and electronic, also agreed to stay away. Even Hearst Media, which owns the daily newspaper closest to Newtown, used reports from the Associated Press, which seemed to be the only media in Newtown on Saturday.
The one-year anniversaries of the shootings at Columbine High School, Virginia Tech and the movie theater in Aurora were covered with on-site reporting. So why did the media stay out of Newtown on Dec. 14? It certainly wasn’t just because town officials asked. Maybe it was because editors who are also parents or grandparents understood the gut-wrenching grief that still hangs over the town? Perhaps it was because unlike other mass shootings most of the victims in Sandy Hook were children. The snow that coated the streets, making driving any vehicle, never mind a satellite truck, a tricky endeavor may have played a role. Certainly reporters saw a message painted on plywood and nailed to a telephone pole on the day the 911 tapes were released. It read:
“Vulture Media You Got Your Tapes R U Happy Please Leave.”
The calculated decision by town officials not to have any scheduled activities that day certainly made it easier for editors to decide to stay away. Perhaps a cord was struck at a press conference earlier in the anniversary week, announcing the establishment of a web site where their children can be honored and remembered, the victim’s parents said they would be lighting a candle in remembrance of their child the night before the anniversary. And when the parent of a child brutally murdered in a classroom comments that they will be marking the anniversary simply and quietly, maybe even the most cynical journalist listens and understands.
Whatever the reason, staying away on Saturday was a gesture that will help reporters a lot in the long run.
Most of the victims’ families were not in town Dec. 14. Many of the families of the children who escaped the building also left town out of fear that seeing media would rekindle the trauma. Town officials asked the members of the press to stay away to reduce the anxiety of the children in town. And once the judgment calls were made to stay away, no one wanted to be the lone outlet accused of stressing out children and the grieving.
Those who remained in Newtown were genuinely surprised and pleased with the lack of media presence. It was a topic of conversation throughout the town that day. Those who have an address of Sandy Hook, which is a part of the Town of Newtown, talked about the sigh of relief at turning the corner from Route 34 onto Church Hill Road and not seeing the satellite trucks clogging the road that leads to the school. There were whispers among the parishioners attending a memorial mass at St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church how nice it was that they were able to enter the worship space without the scrutiny of a camera lenses.
According to police, members of the media did try to enter the grounds of St. Rose, but they were asked to leave, and did so without incident.
Except for the sound of bells ringing 26 times at 9:30 a.m., there was little that needed to be shared from Newtown that day. The entire focus on the anniversary – whether it be the news coverage or the church services — was on those slain at the school. The mother of the gunman, the first one shot in his rampage, was not mentioned.
While some residents will always resent the media presence, the inaccurate reporting the day of the tragedy and the insensitivity of several media outlets in the days following the murders, some of the hostility toward the media now seems to have softened.
The network news and the local affiliates conducted interviews with parents willing to speak publicly prior to the anniversary. The stories about a young boy who ran in a triathlon for kids, a redhead who had an uncanny way of communicating with animals and a jazz-musician father who wrote a letter of encouragement to himself – all were aired Dec. 13 and 14. Each story was tastefully done and brutally sad, but it was so much better than a media ambush of residents whose patience is worn thin.
In the days after the tragedy, not only was Newtown filled with media from around the world, but people flooded the town from all points of the country. On the anniversary, however, the public stayed away. Perhaps it was because the media were not there, or because there was no public memorial. Maybe it was even the snow. But the ripple effect of the media respecting the town’s wishes was far reaching.
Newtown residents can’t be disillusioned to think or even hope that reporters will erase directions to the town from their GPS, but now that all the “firsts” — the first birthdays, the first holidays, the formation of the first organizations and foundations in the children’s names — are over, perhaps the media onslaught will be lighter. And now that the media did show restraint and respect on the anniversary, maybe Newtown will be a bit kinder when the press comes calling again.
There is no handbook on how to cover the murder and the one-year anniversary of children and educators murdered in a school. When 16 children were murdered in their school in Dunblane, Scotland in 1996, the media world was a much different place.
Throughout the year, Newtown residents have asked for respect in the coverage of their town. They have been vocal about the saturation of coverage in the aftermath of the shooting. The gift finally came at Christmastime when the media showed its heart.
Eileen Byrnes is a former reporter who lives in Sandy Hook, Ct.