Defending news media after Newtown tragedy

Before the horrific school shooting in Newtown, Conn., the town had a sweet innocence not unlike our own. In Salida, where residents pack the streets for the lighting of Christmas Mountain, we also have that child-friendly, small-town feeling. Although some residents may bristle at this next comparison, the Norman Rockwell-esque ambiance in Salida adds to its charm.

At an exercise class this week, I overheard a group of locals commenting on how the media makes the Newtown tragedy even worse. But I don’t see it this way.

The closest I’ve been to this kind of heartbreak was while working at the Rocky Mountain News at the time of the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton. Twelve students and one teacher were killed before the two murderers took their own lives. Many students were injured. Watching the pained faces of the people in Newtown, that time feels raw again.

The experience changed me as a journalist and a person.

I remember the panic in the newsroom of parents who couldn’t reach their children, and their relief, breakdown and exhaustion when they finally did. The first reporters and photographers on the daytime shifts organized, then deployed to gather the news and shoot photos at the scene. Some were seasoned journalists who covered wars in their careers, yet they could barely hold it together just outside the Columbine campus to do their work.

Photographers at a scene such as Columbine don’t self-edit as they shoot. Instead, they take as many pictures as possible and race back to the newsroom where editors sort through them. One photographer got two speeding tickets between Littleton and downtown Denver, trying to meet our quickly put-together early edition. After that second ticket, he floored the accelerator again.

When we saw the first photos, combing through what could and couldn’t be published, many of us became physically ill. Some of us cried, others threw up into trash cans.  We were all deeply disturbed. Even more wrenching than these bloody images were the faces of friends and parents of missing students, and neighbors whose manicured lawns became centers of triage.

This sick feeling settled in our stomachs as we worked to tell our readers what we knew.

We fell into our new routine of spending most of our waking hours in the newsroom, trying to make sense of something completely senseless. We took seriously our responsibility to figure it out and accurately present it to the public.

The usual newsroom politics took a backseat for months as we arrived to work early, stayed late, then met for drinks later to debrief. I remember the parent on the phone who said she put our story about her dead child in her Bible.

After the bars closed, we sat in our cars, talking and not talking, before driving home for a few hours of sleep. That is, if we could sleep. For those of us who aren’t good at power napping, it was a shower, more coffee, then back to work.

Our team spread out to cover all the funerals, attempting to honor the students and their short lives. Afterward, as reporters trickled into the newsroom, spent, we asked the same stupid question, “How was it?”

More than obits, we tried to craft stories that showed who each person was, being sure to include something beautiful. We were forced to contact family members who were overcome with grief. Like a bucket of water overflowing, the grief kept coming, washing onto us. Again, we cried for these young, good people who on the verge of their lives, suddenly lost them. And we still had a number of deadlines to make.

Coping meant more of the same, hanging with co-workers who also struggled outside the newsroom in the real world. I forgot to eat, exercise, call my mom or see friends during this blurry time.

Our discomforts were so embarrassingly minuscule compared to the pain of the parents and witnesses we encountered, we embraced them like penances. We had a hard time shaking them once our days eventually returned to the normal we knew before Columbine.

Next came the endless stories of who knew what when, the bullying and missteps made by the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department. We all wondered what it was like for the parents of the killers.

In response to the school shooting in Newtown, Salida School Superintendent Darryl E. Webb sent an email to parents earlier in the week, notifying them about a public meeting where he will address school-safety efforts and concerns.

He wrote: “We are not in a panic mode. We are carefully being proactive and taking all needed precautions to ensure we are doing everything possible to keep our students, staff and all visitors to our buildings as safe as possible.”

In the coming weeks we will renew the national conversation on gun control and high-capacity magazines for military-style assault weapons. Meanwhile, I hold my child a little closer, a little longer each chance I get.

Now that I’m a parent, my heart lives outside of me in the form of a little girl. I watch my daughter, my heart, struggle to get up in the morning, feed her menagerie of reptiles, then push her breakfast around her plate.

Too soon, it’s time to drop her off at school. As she walks into the classroom, I can’t resist the last-minute connection, “Got your homework? Have a good day! Love you.”

In this moment I realize all that I really need. It is for her to be safe, away from me, at school.

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