The sign “No Media Beyond this Point” is a mark of dysfunction. It’s been popping up in Newtown, Conn., in church parking lots, around Sandy Hook Elementary School, and elsewhere since Friday’s tragic shooting at the school.
I’m a reporter in my bones. I love going places and asking people questions—the trust they show in answering is a privilege. I’m always worrying that I don’t do enough on-the-ground reporting for Slate. I live about 45 minutes from Newtown, and if I hadn’t been in New York on Friday, I’d surely have gotten in my car as soon as I heard the reports of the shooting. But on Friday night, when I got home and saw photos of the “No Media” signs on Twitter, I felt sick about the idea of joining the hordes of reporters converging on one small city. So I’ve stayed away. I don’t mean to sound sanctimonious or to denigrate the work of the journalists who made the trip. But I do think that the cost of intrusion and the sheer waste of the media stampede that follows tragedies like this one far outweigh the benefits of such a mass presence. We shouldn’t do it this way. We should switch to a press pool.
The White House press corps signs on to pools to cover events when it’s not possible, for reasons of logistics or sensitivity, for a large group to attend. For example, when the president visits wounded soldiers or a foreign leader, only a couple of reporters go along. The print pool person files copy to the newspaper reporters, and the TV person sends pictures and sound by satellite to the TV outlets. The networks also set up TV pools in D.C. to cover events they think are somewhat important but not worth the money to duplicate effort. The point, of course, is to set aside competitive advantage in situations where to insist otherwise is impossible or would cause distress. Everyone relies on the pool reporters; they become the collective’s eyes and ears. I asked a veteran White House reporter if there’s a downside, and he said:
I suppose you could argue that the competition for the scoop gets better stories out there, and then we understand more, and that leads to better policy. But I highly, highly doubt that. The press rumbles into these towns like the 101st (Airborne). You might also argue that the push for scoops is killing the network staffs: the poor people who have to scrape and claw to beat the competition, which means they have to be ever more pushy with people who can’t stand one more inch of pushing.
For a story like Newtown, I’d propose say a dozen reporters, not one or two. You’d want enough people to knock on doors and go to coffee shops to find the people who want to talk. They exist, and their voices are crucial and sometimes searing. They are our conduit to understanding and to empathy. They gave us testimonies of loss like Robbie Parker’s tribute to his daughter Emilie, who died, and accounts of harrowing near-misses like Michelle and Curtis Urbinas’ about their daughter Lenie, who is alive. I’m still recovering from this pastor’s account of the 6-year-old girl who was the only one to survive in her first-grade classroom. We need to know what happened, only the people of Newtown can tell us, and journalists are there to ask and listen.
But we don’t need reporters blocking the front door to a vigil ceremony, as they did last Friday at the St. Rose of Lima Church, or pouncing on people as they left the service. We don’t need to clog a small city of 27,000 with traffic and satellite trucks. We don’t need to shove 50 microphones in front of the police chief during his news conference or 50 photographers taking the same pictures of Sandy Hook or 50 reporters chasing down the same residents for the same quotes. When the press turns into a pack, when we swarm a story like this, we stress out victims and their neighbors for no good reason, and we make people hate us. Also, we do a disservice to our whole professional purpose.
An anonymous Romenesko reader, who says he has reported for a New York tabloid, floated the press-pool idea earlier this week. He writes:
Putting that many reporters in one small place creates an environment that’s counterproductive to good journalism. No person—whether it’s a victim’s family or neighbor—is going to have an in-depth, insightful conversation when they’re surrounded by a dozen correspondents (no matter how well-intentioned), with microphones shoved in their faces. Imagine if that crowd was thinned to one reporter, who could sit down for a nuanced, sensitive interview.
Yes, that’s it exactly. The mass invasion of the press makes it harder for any journalist to go deep. It warps the story, as the people who have talked to reporters already become wary and jaded and just plain tired.
The Newtown shootings raise the sensitivity bar, of course, because so many of the witnesses were children. I hope every journalist who talked to a small child, especially on camera, got his or her parent’s permission, but in the crush and jostle, the temptation rises to cut those ethical corners.
The press also got key facts surrounding the shooting wrong in the first few days. Worst of all, CNN misidentified the shooter (Adam Lanza), and outlets including Slate tweeted the Facebook page of his brother. The press also misreported that Lanza’s mother was a kindergarten teacher at Sandy Hook (she wasn’t), Principal Dawn Hochsprung buzzed Lanza into the building (he shot his way in, and Hochsprung died lunging to stop him), and that an altercation took place at the school between Lanza and four staff members a day earlier (it didn’t). It’s hard to say how much of this error to attribute to reporters on the ground running with unfounded rumors, mistakes by overwhelmed local law enforcement, or the too-rapid speed of the Internet. But the current rituals of our tribe aren’t working. We need to call off the scoop and come up with a press-pool agreement the powers that be in the profession can put into play when there’s a desperate—and desperately important—tragedy like this one. That much, at least, is in our control.