Can journalists and grieving communities coexist in tragedy?
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.
Ana Rodriguez, who lost her daughter Maite in the shooting, sat at her dining room table to tell The Associated Press about how the girl aspired to become a marine biologist. She didn’t want her face to appear on camera to divert attention from her daughter.
Sometimes there’s little time to prepare. Tony Dokoupil of CBS News was told to get on a plane to Texas. Fast. Dokoupil said he tried to get away from the pack and knock on doors; in one case, he came upon someone close to a child who died who helped arrange an interview with her parents.
He found residents polite and respectful even when they didn’t want to talk. He was thanked by some people for being there and telling the stories.
Gay recommends journalists focus their attention on people who have lost their lives, not perpetrators. There has been a marked effort on the part of news organizations to minimize mentions of shooters, although Gay was concerned that she had seen more after Uvalde.
In Uvalde, questions raised about the police response to the shooting have lengthened the time the shooting has lingered in the news and increased hostility toward journalists. CNN used a tag team to stake out Pete Arredondo, the schools police chief who directed operations, and get an ambush interview.
“You have people who are supportive of law enforcement,” Contreras said. “It’s a small town; people know each other. All of a sudden people are pointing fingers at the officers you know, so there’s a division.”
For people in communities like Newtown and Uvalde in the immediate aftermath of these stories, the sheer repetitiveness is often wearing.
“If there’s been one interview out here there’s been 150,” said one downtown shopkeeper who, like many in Uvalde, didn’t want his name in a news story. “I mean, how many times can you interview people who don’t know nothing?”
There are some suggestions of what is known in the industry as a pool — where a handful of reporters ask questions of officials and report answers to a larger group. This is used most famously at the White House.
But McBride said this inevitably leads to less aggressive journalism. Most reporters are driven by the impulse to get things their competitors don’t. It was tried in a few instances in Uvalde and proved unsatisfying, Contreras said.
Things grew quieter in Uvalde by this past weekend. Only a television satellite truck remained at the Robb school, and just a handful of journalists were at the courthouse square Saturday as a Hawaiian group presented a giant lei and sang songs.
There’s no avoiding the shock an influx of journalists brings to a quiet community. Weiss recalls being swarmed by reporters after emerging from a meeting with parents. He didn’t know what to say. But in general, the Catholic monsignor said he found the press respectful and has come to understand the importance of its role.
“We needed to get the story out there and we needed to keep this story out there,” Weiss said. “Because in 10 years, what has changed? If anything, it has gotten worse.”
Associated Press journalists Acacia Coronado, Jae C. Hong, Adriana Gomez Licon, Jay Reeves and Eliot Spagat in Uvalde, Texas, contributed to this report.