1 Comment · Thursday, December 27, 2012
Shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School once again demonstrate a troubling paradox: A news story can be accurate and wrong. The aftermath of the massacre quickly
provided reporters with opportunities to put out stories that accurately
reported wildly incorrect but seemingly authoritative information.
by Ben L. Kaufman
Media musings from Cincinnati and beyond
a small weekly responds to an unimaginable disaster and scores a world
scoop is a lesson in the best of journalism. Poynter online’s Julie Moos
described what happened after Newtown Bee associate editor Shannon
Hicks heard the initial call over her police scanner.
drove the mile and a quarter and arrived behind the first dozen police
officers. She started taking photographs through her windshield and
captured her image of a line of children being led away from the
slaughter. “I’m conflicted,” Hicks
said about her photo. “I don’t want people to be upset with me, and I do
appreciate the journalists, especially, who have commented, saying
‘We’re just documenting the news.’ It’s harder when it’s in your
hometown and these are children we’re gonna watch grow up, the ones who
made it. I know people are gonna be upset, but at the same time I felt I
was doing something important.”
editor John Voket explained what was behind that image. “Police and
school system have a protocol” for evacuation. “Children get into a
conga line, shoulder to shoulder, and the only person that’s allowed to
keep their eyes open is the locomotive at the front of the line, usually
an adult. And every other kid has to keep their eyes closed from the
minute they were exiting the classroom to when they got about a couple
hundred yards into the parking lot.”
arrived about 20 minutes later and colleague Hicks “passed the baton”
to him. Hicks also is a volunteer firefighter. The firehouse is next to
the school. “I literally put on my firefighter gear . . . I was there as
a firefighter probably for not even more than 20 minutes before my
editor said he wanted me back in the office to work with him to
coordinate coverage from there.”
continued reporting, but “We operate a little differently because our
job is to take care of the community so we were inside helping to
comfort victims and trying to provide human support without necessarily
making reporting the No. 1 priority. The publisher came down to
comfort some of the families a little later in the day.” R. Scudder
Smith has been Bee publisher since 1973; he is the fourth member of his family to run The Bee
since they founded it in 1877. The paper, which has a full-time
editorial staff of eight, circulates to about two-thirds of the
community of about 29,000.
was Friday and the weekly Bee front page was ready to print. It couldn’t
be changed. “We’ve been putting everything on our website,” publisher
Smith told AP.
added that the traffic surge repeatedly crashed the website until the
Bee acquired “an intermediary service to supersize our bandwidth . . .
We got back up and running this (Saturday) morning.” The staff used
social media to spread information about school lockdowns, re-routed traffic, and grief counseling.
“Facebook and Twitter accounts have been a lifeline to our community
and it shows because 20 percent of the community are following us.” The
Bee also was “looking at doing a special extra to be on the newsstands
those of us outside Newtown, Conn., we can turn to the renewed duel over
gun control. If it were a song, tired and familiar gun control lyrics
would be among “Worst Hits Ever.” It didn’t take long for gun control
advocates to embrace the Sandy Hook massacre and the bellicose NRA to
opt for rare silence. Obama renewed his unredeemed calls for gun
control although he and Mitt Romney dodged the issue in the just-ended
campaign. It was a hornets’ nest neither man opted to kick and reporters
apparently were unable to raise with the candidates.
the Sandy Hook slaughter, fair and balanced Fox News banned discussion
of gun control from the cable network. Maybe Fox News feared we really
would decide if they really reported. New York magazine said the ban spotlights
the “growing chasm between Rupert Murdoch and [Fox News president]
Roger Ailes.” Ailes reportedly is a gun enthusiast. Murdoch, CEO of News
Corp., which owns Fox News, had tweeted a call for stricter gun
control, imploring for “some bold leadership action” from Obama.
me be churlish when everyone else is sympathizing with families,
survivors and first responders. Slaughtering 20 children is awful, but
reporters and editors are familiar with how badly Americans treat urban,
suburban, small town and rural children every day. In Obama’s Chicago
and many other urban areas, gunfire is an omnipresent fact of childhood.
Possibly one-fourth of all American children live in poverty as defined
by federal guidelines. For these kids, federally funded school meals
might be more than a complement to home meals. Health care for poor and
malnourished children isn’t much better than their educations. Medicaid
is among the anti-poverty programs high on the GOP priorities for
absolute cuts and/or reduced annual increases. And let’s not even get
into continuing coverage of physical and sexual child abuse, trafficking
minors and lifelong handicaps from poor or nonexistent prenatal care or
maternal drug and alcohol abuse.
foolish or ignorant reporters credit pious assertions that legislation
can prevent disturbed individuals from obtaining guns and killing as
many people as they can. There are more than 310 million people in this
country. Some are or will become seriously mentally disturbed and obtain
one or more of the hundreds of millions of firearms Americans own. A
Columbine or Sandy Hook could happen again any day.
on the shooting victims rather than shooters might reduce any copycat
effect. Stories and photos elevating killers to celebrity have been
blamed for further rampages. Even though the killer never was
identified, that was the inference drawn from Tylenol poisonings 30
years ago; copycats tried to poison Tylenol capsules. When coverage
began to fade, so did copycat crimes.
leaders realized years ago that traditional (and valuable) Eddie Eagle
gun safety comics and courses were insufficient to motivate and keep
members and their dues. Fear and anger would be more effective. Real and
imagined government controls became NRA’s cause. Few modern American
movements have been as durable and effective as the NRA.
is powerful because we are a democracy. It can mobilize more than 4
million members and fellow travelers as voters, donors and voices in the
news media. Elected representatives who want to keep their jobs quite
reasonably try to avoid the NRA’s opposition. Gun control advocates
evince nothing like this single-minded devotion to their cause.
1994, the Clinton administration won a10-year limit on the sale of
assault-style weapons and large capacity magazines for their ammunition.
I went to a gun store in Hamilton to cover a rush to beat the ban.
Chinese assault-style rifles and curved high-capacity magazines were
selling as fast as staff could pry open crates. As I watched, the price
rose $10 with each new crate: demand and supply. Men who talked to me
said they were buying because of the imminent controls on assault-style
rifles and high-capacity magazines. A few admitted fear of civil unrest
or some undefined federal assault. Most said they wanted a
military-style rifle for shooting targets or empty beer cans and this
might be their last chance.That 10-year ban died in 2004 when
Republicans owned all three branches of federal government and didn’t
seek renewal. However, recent killings that required assault-style
weapons with large-capacity magazines might prompt reconsideration of
the ban. Adam Lanza reportedly carried hundreds of rounds of ammunition
in high-capacity magazines. No one knows why he didn’t use them.
gun control measure that’s not DOA will have to respect millions of
long guns — rifles and shotguns — used by hunters, farmers and others.
That distinction is an important part of this story already handicapped
by the paucity of journalists who hunt or otherwise own firearms.
addition to an unfamiliarity with firearms, partisan hyperbole also
handicaps writing about guns and gun control. It can be hard to find
neutral sources who share reporters’ interest in accurate coverage.
Stenographic reporting giving “both sides” isn’t good enough;
journalists must know enough to challenge obvious partisan
misstatements. We are not obligated to report what we know to be untrue
or to label it as such.
with gun control cropped up in a recent Enquirer story about a failed
armed robbery attempt inside a suburban Sunoco station. Employees with a
handgun and a shotgun fatally wounded the would-be bandit. The Enquirer
story said it was unclear whether the employees had conceal-carry
licenses for those firearms. Unless someone somehow cloaked a shotgun’s
18-28” barrel, no conceal/carry permit is required. Unless the other
Sunoco clerk carried the pistol under his clothes, he didn’t need a
permit. Wearing it openly or storing it under the counter does not
require a conceal/carry permit. So what was the point of that line in
the story? Just because a cop might have said it doesn’t mean the
reporter had to share it. That’s what I’m talking about.
in much gun control coverage is Congress’ inability to craft sensible,
workable bipartisan gun control specifics that can survive NRA
opposition and Supreme Court scrutiny. Firearm confiscation is out of
the question. So is universal registration which raises NRA-orchestrated
fear of confiscation — by ATF, the UN or some other demon de jour — to hysteria. Moreover, the court affirmed an individual Second
Amendment right to own guns in 2010 but it did not rule out federal,
state or local regulations governing firearm use.
faced with new rage over shootings should remind partisans that we have
gun control already. Forty nine states issue conceal/carry permits but
specify where those handguns may not be carried. Illinois — State No.
50 — is under court order to replace its ban with a conceal/carry
permit system. Many if not most municipalities bar gun owners from
firing their weapons within city limits with the exception of
self-defense. States commonly limit when hunters can use rifles and/or
shotguns and they can require a certain size bullet for large-game
hunting. Landowners may bar hunters from their property during
state-sanctioned hunting seasons.
are federal limits on how short a “sawed off” shotgun or rifle barrel
may be. There are laws limiting ownership of silencers and fully
automatic machine guns and submachine guns. Federally licensed firearms
dealers must run background checks on prospective buyers and turn away
those who fail or won’t comply. Dealers can deny convicted felons a gun
under federal and many state laws. A legal purchaser may not buy a
firearm for someone who would fail a federal background check.
Mentally-ill customers can be turned away by dealers.
of the roughly 12,000 Americans shot to death annually are killed with
shot with shotguns or rifles. They’re shot with pistols. So when gun
control is promoted, reporters should press advocates to say what they
• Before reporters share the lunacy of arming
teachers, ask local cops how many rounds typically are fired from their
handguns in an armed encounter . . . and how many of those bullets hit
their target. Not many. It's very, very difficult for someone trained
even at the level of police to accurately fire when adrenaline is
pumping. The teacher might end up shooting more students than the
intruder. Better to count on the low probability of an armed intrusion.
Think about how rare this is. Awful when it happens, but very, very
rare, even in communities where other shootings are far more frequent.