Sunday, December 16, 2012

My experience in Newtown, Connecticut

On Friday my boss asked me if I'd be willing to go to Newtown, Connecticut to aid a sister newspaper in covering the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. I said sure.

Saturday I was on the road at 6:30 a.m. and arrived at the newspaper office a little more than two hours later. An editor from the corporate team talked to us briefly, took down our contact information and told us to drive 45 minutes away to Southbury. The company had rented a hotel conference room there to use as a temporary office 10 minutes from where the shooting took place.

The plan was that we would each descend on a family of one of the 20 child victims and see if we can get anyone to talk or share a photo. We just had to wait for the police to release the names at a press conference, which we are expecting to happen soon. I hate approaching people who recently lost a loved one. Everyone does, and that plan broke down before I even reached the hotel.

I listened to NPR on the drive to Southbury and they cut to a live announcement from State Police Lt. J. Paul Vance that the 20 families had all asked to be left alone and each one had a state trooper stationed outside their home to make sure that happens. He means us media people, not the general public. I was relieved, personally. Forcing us to keep away also forced the competition to stay away.

There's a bit of game theory in why reporters swoop on victim families as fast as they can. When I first started out as a reporter at a weekly I tried giving some families a few days before approaching them. I figured, we only publish weekly and it will still get in print at the same time, so what's the harm. Big mistake. People will often talk to a few reporters and then get sick of it and turn all the other ones away, so we have to get in before that happens. In this case, the state police took that need to rush out of the equation.

When I arrived at the hotel I was one of about eight young reporters in a small conference room. They had come from places like Pennsylvania and New York and were setting up their laptops. No one was working and they were talking about how much they dread talking to the families. They were all chatty. One young woman said she's going to try contacting them anyways because other people will and I silently resented her for the rest of the day. I checked to see that my computer would connect to the Internet so I could file what I wrote and then packed up my things.

German tank commander Erwin Rommel famously said "In the absence of orders, find something and kill it" and I had that idea in mind when I set my GPS for Sandy Hook Elementary. On the radio Lt. Vance had said the outside of the school was part of the crime scene investigation and was under wraps, so I wasn't surprised to see the road was blocked off thousands of feet and around the bend early near the downtown village.

I parked and walked around the small Sandy Hook downtown village. The streets were lined with cars, many of them big news vans. I spent about 45 minutes just walking around, taking photos. I didn't try to interview anyone. About two-thirds of the people here were reporters, many of them from foreign media companies. We always stand out with our shiny press passes, thin notepads and stuffy outfits. There were a few pairs wearing matching action team jackets.

I overheard a ton of broadcasters recording cliche lines that are always pulled out when a whole lot of people die at the same time. This town will never fully heal. The entire nation is shocked. No one thought it could ever happen here. Etc. Anyone walking around with a child was pounced on. They wanted to know what local parents thought. Do their kids go to that school? How upset are they? No one said anything surprising.

A number of religious groups descended on the place as well. I eventually spoke to some Seventh-Day Adventists who said we all need to forgive and heal and that the shooter was tricked by the devil. I passed someone wearing a roadside reflector vest that said "PRAYER TEAM" in vertical letters. There were plenty of Honk-For-Jesus style signs held by the road.

Churches had their doors open for the public to come inside for comfort and I went into the United Methodist Church to check it out. I hid my press pass and notebook before approaching the building and I spent a few minutes inside trying to memorize what I saw. I was the only person in an empty sanctuary and I took a seat in the front pew between two boxes of tissues. They had taken a plywood manger from a nativity scene upfront with a single candle on a blue cloth under it. There were three vases of flowers and two bouquets. I spent a few extra minutes there to avoid suspicion, trying to fake weary, religious body language in case anyone was watching.

I was wearing a navy blue suit, a green overcoat and a bow tie. I try to wear a bow tie when I'm covering stories like this to appear less intimidating when I approach. All the cafes and hair salons and corner stores in the downtown area had signs up front in support of the victims. A few of them had signs saying they will not give interviews.

I met up with a talkative British reporter named Tom. He now lives in New York City and his company sent him out here. Frustrated, he said he just wants to go home to his wife and not bother anyone here. He convinced me to eat a small lunch with him at an English pub. Every booth  had reporters working behind electronic equipment set up on their tables. I just ordered pie because I want to save money. Tom ordered fish and chips, but they were out.

We talked for a little bit and he was very interested in learning more about me, what I've read, how I got into reporting, and why don't I move to a bigger city. He asked a lot of questions and said little about himself. He was pleased when he found out I have a British last name but was less impressed when I said my middle name is German. While we were talking an overly polite woman approached us and asked us to keep it down please because they were recording at their table. I headed out and he said he'll email me to keep in touch.

I got my first interview on the sidewalk. Two college students had just set up a donation table for the victims' families. They had only been there a minute so I knew they weren't sick of reporters yet. While I was talking I saw another reporter standing a few feet off, waiting for me to finish. I waited for a break in the conversation and told him he's free to join in. Other jumped in as well.

I got the students on video and I didn't tell them what I was thinking, that fake charities spring up around popular tragedies and how do we know they aren't going to pocket or skim the cash they take in? I hope videotaping them and putting it online will help if there's ever a case against them, but they did seem sincere. I'll never know.

Outside a toy store there were crayons to write notes to heaven and I took some photos of it before it was used by two girls, ages 7 and 11. I asked their mom if it's OK to take pictures of them writing their notes and she said yes. After my first two shots I look up and see there are half a dozen other news photographers around now. I backed out of their frame and mom told me how to spell their names. I wrote it out twice and tore off one of the sheets for her so she could show it to reporters instead of having to spell it out again and again.

The younger girl told me she wrote that she feels bad for all the parents who don't have their children for Christmas. It was genuinely touching and I thanked her.

While I was driving back to the hotel to write I drove past the Blue Colony Diner about a mile from the school. I recognized it as a place I had gone to with friends who live in the area at least twice in the last few years. That gave me an eerie feeling.

An editor from corporate was now installed in the hotel conference room. Everything was chaos. He had a dry sense of humor and everyone was talking about how poorly things were being coordinated. People talked about accessing some Google document I never saw. I was told to give my Skype name to be used as a central messaging service, but no one ever contacted me on it. There were at least four email addresses to send our stuff to..

It was a little past 1 p.m.when I arrived and the new plan was that when the names were released we would try to track them down on social media. The problem was that most of the victims were too young to have their own Facebook pages, so this was going to be tough.

We got to order lunch and charge it to the room, but just after I placed my order my cell phone rang. It was an editor from New Haven and she wanted me to find places that cater to children to see what their turnout was like that day. They wanted to know if parents were keeping kids home or putting more effort to take them somewhere fun. I didn't need to talk to kids, just managers and parents. She said it was something they should have thought of earlier in the day, but we've already missed the morning so I needed to head out right now while there's still time. I was told to finish typing my observations from town later. I canceled my lunch order and drove. Someone from corporate told me in a friendly, reassuring voice don't forget to eat.

She was supposed to email me a list of places to try, but that never happened. I knew the downtown area was too congested and the legions of reporters would have burned anyone out who was there, so I started driving around the area. It was much more rural than I thought and I decided to search for different words as part of business names in my GPS, like "kids," "play" and "fun."

I drove onto a road to turn around towards the "Family Fun Factory" (whatever that is) six miles away when I spotted the perfect business next to me. By stupid luck, I had found a business that has a big play room full of gymnastics equipment for kids to romp around on. A six year old was having her birthday party there. It was perfect, but they still had to agree to talk to me.

The clerk told me there was no manager there for me to talk to, but she would call her boss to see if she was allowed to talk. I figured this would be a dead end, but I was wrong. The boss said sure. The clerk even pointed me to the birthday girls mom who was willing to talk. I just couldn't take photos. Close enough, I called the editor in New Haven to say I had enough to start the story, and could she please email me those suggestions. She said yes, but never did.

My GPS took me to a sprawling area with multiple strip malls in Danbury. I couldn't find the Family Fun Factory, and after a lot of driving around to see what the area offered, I ended up pulling over to use Google on my smartphone. There was a YMCA a few miles away. Bam, another clerk interview. I saw signs for an ice arena nearby. Bam, another hit.

The manager at the ice arena was incredibly welcoming to me. I think it was because I started off by saying I was writing a positive story. She told me plenty, including how they went into lockdown the day before while the shooting resolved. I was allowed to take photos in the ice area.

There was a kids hockey game taking place on the ice. I stood by a guy and his kid who were watching, but they were interacting with each other and walked off before I could get the nerve to approach them. I walked around and a mom smiled at me. That's all I need. I made my positive story pitch again. Bingo. She was friendly and understanding, and her son was the goalie so it would be easy to photograph him on the ice since I knew where he was. I asked her about taking photos so she wouldn't be weirded out and she recommended holding my phone against the battered glass barrier so all the marks and scrapes don't show up.

I didn't get any good photos. The puck was on the other side of the ice for most of the two minutes I had before the game ended. I now had five sources at three locations and arrived back at the hotel around 5:30 p.m.

The names had been released while I was out and there were different reporters in the conference room now. One reporter said she felt bad that a waitress broke down crying while she interviewed her. I was lucky to get a seat because there weren't enough to go around. My company has a pay freeze and I have the oldest laptop there and I spent some time wondering how we can afford all these hotel rooms and staff overtime and paid lunches. Someone said their paper saw a 50 percent jump in paid website subscriptions this weekend so maybe venture will pay for itself.

I worked next to a loud talker and typed up my story in a Gmail. It took me about 45 minutes and required some Googling to make sure I got local details like the spelling of town names correct. Then I closed it out accidentally while looking for the email address to send it to. Big mistake. It took me about 10 minutes to learn that it really didn't autosave on me and I had to write it again.

The rewrite only took 30 minutes because I wrote the parts in reverse order while the last section was still fresh in my mind. I sent it in in time to order the same cheeseburger I didn't have for at lunch and typed up my downtown interviews while I waited for food.

I was sent the names of one of the children while I worked on my story. The only trace of her on Facebook was a Facebook group someone had set up that day, and it had no photos of her. The people who joined it seemed to be strangers. I tried searching for her on Twitter, but all I got was people sending out lists of the victims names. I had to report that I couldn't find anything. They weren't mad; it's the nature of the situation.

It was 8 p.m.when I finished everything. Some people were staying overnight, but I wasn't. They were making plans to get drunk together in the hotel rooms the company was providing. It turned out one of my friends lives less than two miles from the hotel and we went out for ice cream afterwards. I changed into jeans and a sweatshirt in a public bathroom and I finally got home a little bit before midnight.

I've never been part of a large news team working on a national tragedy before. There was always a sense of gravity for the tragedy, but I was focused on not being trite or shallow in my coverage. It was as if people think they will turn over a rock or interview a street and find a rational explanation for why the shooter killed all those people, as if it's possible that the motive has a logic to it people can relate to.

We're probably going to find out the killer did it because he has mental delusions, and the broadcasters will tell us that we will never know why he did it. Well, if it was because of mental delusions, that is an explanation for why he did it. It's just not a satisfying one.

There isn't really a moral progression or a character arc in how I look at the situation. I'm just sharing what I saw and experienced, so please don't expect anything more than that. Like every other reporter there, I came as a sense of duty to my media company, the public and my own curiosity. No one ghoulishly enjoys these stories. They can be emotionally difficult to cover.

Children, along with adults, were murdered in cold blood. The only insightful thing I heard all day about the tragedy, from my own reporting or any one else's, was from that little girl who said she feels bad for those parents won't have their kids home for Christmas. Everything else was fluff.

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