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Can journalists and grieving communities coexist in a tragedy?

NEW YORK – When a group of journalists stood opposite a morgue and witnessed a funeral for a child killed in the Uvalde school massacre, some passers-by did not hide their anger.

“You are all the scum of the earth,” said one woman, looking at the cameras.

When tragedy strikes the city in the 21st century, the media follows, turning the world’s eyes to a community in its most difficult hour. Columbine, Sandy Hook, now Uvalde, Texas – the list of places synonymous with horrific mass murders continues to grow.

Journalists are called upon to explain what happened and sometimes ask uncomfortable questions where many people want to be left alone to mourn. Is there a better way to live together in a moment that no one wants to be a part of?

Tempers have flared up in Uvalde. One journalist was told, “I hope your entire family dies in a massacre.” Some face arrest for trespassing on public property. A group called “Guardians of the Children” blocked camera views, often with police encouragement.

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But there are also people like Ben Gonzalez, who approached reporters near the morgue after hearing the woman thrash about to say she didn’t speak for everyone. “Thank you for documenting this tragedy,” he said. “We’ll revisit the photos you take and appreciate it.”

The shadowy court square in Uvalde was dotted with canopies erected by television news crews. Journalists were stationed at Robb Elementary School, where the shooting took place, near a makeshift memorial strewn with flowers, stuffed animals and messages. At the local Starbucks, where many journalists work, tables are reserved for Uvalde residents.

These are typical signs of the journalistic invasion that accompanies such events.

“I respect people’s wishes when they want me to go,” said Guillermo Contreras, a senior writer at the San Antonio Express-News. “On the second day (after the shooting) people were overwhelmed. The city was overrun by reporters. There was almost nowhere to go without bumping into the media.”

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Like most of his colleagues, Contreras tries to be sensitive to what Uvalde’s people must endure. He has a 10 year old daughter at home.

“When you’re at the epicenter of a situation like this, you really need protection,” said Michele Gay, who lost her daughter Josephine in the Newtown school shooting a decade ago. “You’re really in no mood to offer your feelings on camera.”

Gay said she had no idea how much attention the story was getting until the state police officer assigned to protect her family drove her across town to see the memorials.

“At first I was angry,” said Gay, co-founder and executive director of Safe and Sound Schools, an advocacy group. “It felt intrusive. It felt hurtful… At the same time, there were members of the media who were so thoughtful, caring, and compassionate.”

The sensibility that most journalists try to bring to such assignments can be undermined by those who hold cameras in the faces of crying people or ask grieving parents how that feels. A parent who lost a child in Newtown saw someone outside their home with a camera peering into a window, said Monsignor Robert Weiss of the city’s St. Rose of Lima Parish.

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In general, journalists do a poor job of explaining what they are doing and a poor job of putting themselves in the shoes of the people they interview, many on the worst day of their lives, said Joy Mayer, a former journalism professor.

“It’s really fair that people in this community feel overwhelmed and angry,” said Mayer, director of Trusting News, which helps media professionals improve their relationships with the public.

Kelly McBride, journalist ethics expert at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, advises news organizations to prepare better when assigned to these stories. Most interviews on the street show that this work has not yet been done; People experiencing shock and trauma, she said, shouldn’t have to make a decision on how to deal with a reporter on the spot.

She commended CNN for its sensitive handling of the interview of a young shooting survivor who smeared herself with the blood of a dead classmate to look dead. CNN reported what the girl said but didn’t show her or play her voice.

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Ana Rodriguez, who lost her daughter Maite in the shooting, sat at her dining table to tell The Associated Press how the girl wanted to be a marine biologist. She didn’t want her face on camera to divert attention from her daughter.

Sometimes there is little time to prepare. CBS News’ Tony Dokoupil was told to get on a plane to Texas. Quickly. Dokoupil said he tried to escape the pack and knocked on doors; In one instance, he encountered someone close to a deceased child who helped arrange a meeting with their parents.

He found the residents polite and respectful even when they didn’t want to talk. Some people thanked him for being there and telling the stories.

Gay advises journalists to focus their attention on people who have lost their lives, not perpetrators. There was a clear effort on the part of news organizations to minimize mentions of shooters, although Gay was concerned she had seen more after Uvalde.

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In Uvalde, questions about the police response to the shooting have kept the shooting longer in the news and increased hostility towards journalists. CNN deployed a tag team to stake and ambush Pete Arredondo, the school’s police chief who was directing operations.

“You have people supporting law enforcement,” Contreras said. “It’s a small town; people know each other. Suddenly people are pointing fingers at officers you know, so there’s a division.”

For people in communities like Newtown and Uvalde, immediately following these stories, mere repetition is often tiring.

“If there was an interview out here, there were 150,” said a downtown shopkeeper who, like many in Uvalde, did not want his name in a message. “I mean, how many times can you interview people who don’t know anything?”

There are some suggestions for what is known in the industry as a pool — where a handful of reporters ask questions of officials and relay answers to a larger group. This is most famously used in the White House.

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But McBride said this inevitably leads to less aggressive journalism. Most reporters are driven by the impulse to get things their competitors aren’t getting. It has been tried in some cases in Uvalde and proved unsatisfactory, Contreras said.

Things got quieter in Uvalde last weekend. There was only one television satellite truck left at the Robb school, and only a handful of journalists were in the courthouse plaza on Saturday as a Hawaiian group presented a giant lei and sang songs.

The shock that an influx of journalists brings to a quiet community is inevitable. Weiss recalls being swarmed by reporters after he emerged from a meeting with his parents. He didn’t know what to say. But in general, the Catholic monsignor said he found the press respectful and understood the importance of their role.

“We had to get the story out and we had to keep that story out,” Weiss said. “Because what has changed in 10 years? If anything, it’s gotten worse.”

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Associated Press journalists Acacia Coronado, Jae C. Hong, Adriana Gomez Licon, Jay Reeves, and Eliot Spagat in Uvalde, Texas, contributed to this report.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission.

https://www.local10.com/entertainment/2022/06/06/can-journalists-and-grieving-communities-coexist-in-tragedy/ Can journalists and grieving communities coexist in a tragedy?

Sarah Y. Kim

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