effects on society

A different approach to Sandy Hook: Is the media, for once, loath to reward violence with infamy?

A different approach to Sandy Hook: Is the media, for once, loath to reward violence with infamy?

Sandy Hook, shooting, angels, December 2012
Sandy Hook victims memorialized Imgace.com
Connecticut shooting, Sandy Hook, funeral
After a Sandy Hook funeral Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images
Sandy Hook, shooting, angels, December 2012
Connecticut shooting, Sandy Hook, funeral

Just like you, I was glued to the TV on Friday night, watching the horrific aftermath of Sandy Hook shootings, trying to shake the sadness and the numbness at once. 

In my head, all I could do was ask questions: Who was the shooter? Why did he do it? What does he look like? Who is his family? What was his background? 

I went to sleep on Friday night unsatisfied. I didn’t hear so much as his name. The media, it seemed, was holding back.

My reporter brain knew on some intellectual level, just as my human heart knew on a deeper one, what kind of pain and suffering the families were going through. 

Having covered scores of tragedies in my 22-year career, I was familiar with that side of the story. 

I’d interviewed women who had carried the broken bodies of their children through dark, waterlogged streets in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I knew dads who had buried their 10-year-old sons gunned down by gangsters. I had stood by entire groups of families as police notified them that yes, their mom or brother or son was one of the six shot to death in that office shooting in Corpus Christi, and they’d crumple to the ground in sobs. I knew that story.

Lucky enough to escape such violent tragedy in my own life, I was still disquietingly familiar with those who hadn’t been. 

In the hours after the shootings, what I wanted to know was the story that hadn’t unfolded before: the story of this particular lunatic. 

I wanted to know about this guy. I wanted to know what he had been doing before it all happened. I wanted to trace his steps, read his computer, check his DVR and walk through his house.

But as reporters stood in the dark night in front of the churches where prayer vigils were being held, blinking into the camera lights and describing the grief unfolding behind them, I never heard his name. Anderson Cooper didn’t say it. Brian Williams didn’t say it.

 But in stark contrast with the way the national media has covered every one of the increasingly common mass murders in this country, they were approaching it differently this time around. 

Of course, by then, it was out there. Everyone knew his name, his age. Everyone had seen one snapshot, grainy and strange. 

But in stark contrast with the way the national media has covered every one of the increasingly common mass murders in this country, they were approaching it differently this time around. 

They didn’t make the story about him. They instantly — instantly — made it about the victims.

The media, it seemed, were loath to reward the violence with infamy. 

For once, they didn’t want to be accused of paying too much attention to evil and not enough attention to its victims. 

And to my utter shock, as someone who has traced the steps of many lunatics in the hours before they went off the deep end, I agreed with that.

Still reeling from the crazy dyed-hair mugshot of James Holmes after the Aurora shootings, freshly bombarded with Jared Lee Loughner’s face leering at us from the courtroom coverage of Gabby Giffords attack, the media was obviously declining to go there again. 

Maybe they didn’t have the staff, but I find that impossible to believe. They find the reporters when they need them. 

Maybe they didn’t have the stomach for it. Wrong again. Believe me, it’s a lot harder to cover the crying parents than it is to cover the dead guy who hurt them.

The media made a decision, simple and clear. They didn’t glorify the shooter. They chose not to tell his story. As a former cops reporter and a lifer in the news business, I can’t overstate how big this is.

Now in the days since, details of Adam Lanza’s life is trickling out, alongside theories about how to prevent this from happening again. 

He played lots of Call of Duty (as does my husband) and is thought to have had Asperger Syndrome (as do many), and his mom liked guns (I have a photo of my mom firing an AR-15). 

 The media made a decision, simple and clear. They didn’t glorify the shooter. They chose not to tell his story. 

It tells us a little, but not much. I’m sure there will be more. The media, which has no shortage of reporters when the chips are down, is just now getting around to that story. And you can bet that they haven’t forgotten.

But.

Remember how much we knew about Holmes in the first day after his attack? Remember Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, the Columbine shooters? The incredible journalists in Colorado had their story told before the week ended. 

But the taste for the attacker’s story has soured this time around. In fact, with the exception of us who are trained to ask those questions, all of society seems to want to silence the violence in the wake of Sandy Hook. 

I’m not talking about gun control. I’m talking about violence in the media and its effect on our society. It’s an idea I once scoffed at, back when I was making straight A's in high school while listening to Metallica and, later, writing about police chases and gang shootings and murders all the time. 

We, I told myself, were not to blame for this. But even I am now forced to listen to the silence, as rings out across our never-quite-peaceful country. 

The preview for Quentin Tarantino’s new shoot-em-up was cancelled after Sandy Hook. Ke$ha’s song, "Die Young," has been yanked from the airwaves. Facebook and Twitter are filled with calls for parents to return the violent video games they’ve bought for their kids and bypass bloody movies.

But while the decrying of violence in the media is nothing new, what seems new this time is that the media is agreeing with it. 

It seems counterintuitive, at first, to decline to tell any part of the story. Like it or not, the media has a job, and that’s to tell the story. To make sense of the shooting. To tell us, the public, who this guy was and what on earth he was thinking when he shot up an elementary school and killed 20 little kids. 

 But while the decrying of violence in the media is nothing new, what seems new this time is that the media is agreeing with it. 

We’ve spent decades listening to readers hate us for doing that, while consuming with ravenous appetites every last detail. But this time, maybe because there’s just been so many of them, we were able to leave it alone for a while. 

In another time, I might have raged at the TV and decried the softening of the media. Back when I was young and stupid and this nation didn’t have as many unthinkable episodes under its belt. 

Now, I see nothing wrong with letting it lie while we all absorbed the heartbreak and grieved alongside all those parents. 

How could we do that, you ask? That’s the easiest question of all. 

The shooter was dead. His story could wait. 

The stories of the families, and the children, and the outrage of a nation, was happening right now. It was the story that needed to be told.

I can live with that.