Lessons from Sandy Hook Elementary: When to shut up, when to not

On Friday, Dec. 14, a young man killed his mother, then walked into an elementary school, killed 20 children (all six and seven years old) and six more adults, then killed himself.

I found out about this a few hours after it happened, while I was setting up to play racquetball. When I came home later in the afternoon, I felt like someone had knocked the wind out of me.

One of the things I found out that time outside of news has taught me is that I can feel, intensely, even.

I was a general assignment reporter on 9/11. It happened on a Tuesday, and our weekly papers came out on Monday and Tuesday, so we wouldn't be going to press again for another few days. I didn't really have anything to write about, even though it was obviously big news, and a life-marking event for my generation.

But I was mostly numb to emotion for a few days. When I found out a friend had died, I took a couple hours off of work and played music, music that she'd enjoyed, songs she'd sung with me dozens of times. Generally, though I just felt like I should be informing someone of something.

In Daniel Schorr's autobiography, he says one of the things that made him a great journalist was that he felt emotionally removed from everything that happened, and able to report on it objectively.

I felt the same way about my ability to be emotionally removed. But I just couldn't be that afternoon. And let's be honest, some people want journalists to show they're human sometimes.

It was an interesting night, not only because we had different information coming from different sources throughout the night, but also because we have 12 different sites that we work with (when I say "we," I mean our team – I work from home, but there are always three or four others working from their homes and we're in constant contact), sites in different locations with different things important to them. We have them in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana; in Central Pennsylvania and the Lehigh Valley; in New Jersey and on Staten Island; all across Michigan; in industrial cities like Springfield, Mass., Syracuse and Cleveland; and in that liberal Mecca Portland, Ore..

These are communities with very different populations and very different priorities. And they all love their children.

If you followed the news at all over the weekend, you know that it was pretty much wall-to-wall coverage for the first day and a half, and now it's more of a human interest angle (funerals and profiles). During the first 12 or 15 hours or so, there was so much misinformation out there, much of propagated by news outlets, that it reminded me that sometimes we need to shut up and look for truth sometimes. And in some cases, maybe shutting up isn't the best route to take.

Media jumped all over information and drew conclusions without any real information. We know now that the shooter was Adam Lanza. He had his brother Ryan's ID on him, though, and some media outlets didn't think to account for the fact that maybe the person and the driver's license wouldn't match. Far from being dead in Connecticut, Ryan Lanza was wondering why people were writing shocking things on his Facebook wall. He was on the bus on the way home from work.

For several hours, the media had the wrong Lanza brother. Ryan deleted his Facebook account, and I'm sure there will be plenty of fallout from this as the months progressed. Don't be surprised if there are civil lawsuits.

An interesting side note on jumping the gun like that. Even in 1694, news organizations were concerned about getting confirmation. When did that stop, and why?

Lesson for the media: Sometimes you need to shut up and figure out what the facts are before you go blabbing out any old information you think you have.

You know who else should have shut up? Some people who just want their football. President Obama was in Newtown to deliver his standard "America is weeping with you, something must be done" speech on Sunday night [aside: Don't get me wrong, that's important for the people of Newtown to hear, I just wish we'd have someone speak from the heart instead of delivering the script sometime]. He interrupted the broadcast of the Sunday night football game for about 10 minutes.

Someone tweeted, "Get that nigger off the TV, we want to watch football." Yeah, that got him kicked off his college football team. He deleted his Twitter account, and one of the people he tweeted at had to delete his account, too, what with all the hate mail he was getting.

Another person he tweeted at in that post reminded people that he can't be responsible for every stupid thing the people he knows say.

That guy who got kicked off his football team, though, was definitely not alone in his sentiments. I hope other people suffered some consequences of not shutting up.

On the other end of the spectrum is the National Rifle Association (NRA), the country's biggest gun lobby. Just a few days after they thanked everybody for getting them to 1.7 million likes on Facebook, they pulled down their Facebook page.

They also went silent on Twitter for a few days, which is common for them in the wake of mass shootings in the U.S.

If you want to stay relevant, I think you have to say something, even if it is just a "We're mourning, too." I think it's really telling that they take a "let's go hide in the corner until everybody focuses on something else for a while" approach to these events.

Lastly, I want to mention something that might point to the growing maturity of the Internet as a medium.

You might have seen your friends posting a plea to stop stigmatizing mental illness called I am Adam Lanza's mother.

Well, one mother went back trough the author's personal blog and ripper her a new one for the things she was really saying about her kids in public.

Instead of this becoming a war, like that Oatmeal-Buzzfeed thing that happened, the two parents got together to start a discussion and find some common ground.

We, as a species, and we, as a culture, and we, as the media, have a lot to learn still. Mostly, I think it has to do with listening. If we listen to each other, we're going to be able to prevent some of these incidents in the first place.

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18/12/2012

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