Can journalists and grieving communities coexist in tragedy?

Posted at 11:00 AM, Jun 06, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-06 12:02:02-04

NEW YORK (AP) — As a knot of journalists stood across from a mortuary witnessing a funeral for a child killed in the Uvalde school massacre, some people passing by didn’t disguise their anger.

“Y’all are the scum of the Earth,” said one woman, surveying the cameras.

When tragedy comes to town in the 21st century, the media follows, focusing the world’s eyes on a community during its most difficult hours. Columbine, Sandy Hook, now Uvalde, Texas — the list of places synonymous with horrible mass killings keeps growing.

Journalists are called upon to explain what happened, and sometimes to ask uncomfortable questions in places where many people want to be left alone to grieve. Is it possible to do it better, to co-exist within a moment no one wants to be part of?

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

Yet there are also people like Ben Gonzalez, who approached reporters near the mortuary after hearing the woman lash out to say that she doesn’t speak for everyone. “Thank you for documenting this tragedy,” he said. “We’ll look back at the photos you take and appreciate it.”

The shady courthouse square in Uvalde has been dotted by canopies erected by TV news crews. Journalists have been stationed at Robb Elementary School, where the shooting took place, near a makeshift memorial piled with flowers, stuffed animals and messages. At the local Starbucks, where many journalists go to work, tables are set aside for Uvalde residents.

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

“I respect the wishes of people if they want me to leave,” said Guillermo Contreras, a senior writer at the San Antonio Express-News. “By the second day (after the shooting), the people were overwhelmed. The town has been overrun by reporters. There was pretty much nowhere you could go without running into the media.”

Like most colleagues, Contreras tries to be sensitive to what Uvalde’s people are enduring. He has a 10-year-old daughter at home.

“When you are at the epicenter of a situation like that, you really do need protection,” said Michele Gay, who lost her daughter Josephine in the Newtown school shooting a decade ago. “You are really not in a state of mind to be offering your feelings in front of the camera.”

Gay said she had no idea at the extent of attention given to the story until the state trooper assigned to protect her family drove them around 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 invasive. It felt hurtful ... At the same time, there were members of the media who were so thoughtful, caring and compassionate.”

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

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

“It’s really valid for people in that community to feel overwhelmed and resentful,” said Mayer, the director of Trusting News, which helps members of the media improve their relationship with the public.

Kelly McBride, an expert on journalism ethics at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, advises news organizations to better prepare when assigned to these stories. Most interviews on the street indicate this work hasn’t been done; people in shock and trauma, she said, shouldn’t have to make an on-the-spot decision about dealing with a reporter.

She praised CNN for sensitively handling the interview of a young survivor of the shooting who smeared herself in the blood of a dead classmate to appear dead. CNN reported on what the girl said, but didn’t show her or play her voice.