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Journalism and Sandy Hook: Telling the story of tragedy

Photo courtesy CNN.
Photo courtesy CNN.

20 children dead.

Even though no one wants to hear the news, the shooting in Sandy Hook dominated front pages around the world Saturday morning and has rolled nonstop on TV stations for the last 48 hours.

Meanwhile, reporters dig for information, for motive, for answers.

But they often do it by jamming a microphone in the face of a parent who just lost a child, focusing a camera on a grieving student or interviewing a child who no longer has his best friend.

People on Facebook, Twitter and blogs have sounded off against these journalists, calling them insensitive and heartless, while calling the work they do intrusive and unnecessary.

I’d like to argue just the opposite.

Let me preface this by saying that my heart breaks for the people in Connecticut.

I cannot imagine the pain of a parent losing a child, a first-grader losing a classmate or a teacher losing a coworker. Situations like these make us mourn our broken world, and as Christians, anticipate when God’s kingdom comes in completion.

But digging into this story is absolutely necessary.

Before I address the shootings in Sandy Hook, I’d like to bring you back to a small example from my own experience in late November.

Calvin’s women’s volleyball team was a favorite to win the national championship game, and the atmosphere in the arena was electric. Almost everyone in the building was rooting for a Calvin national title, including my staff with Chimes.

After Calvin took the first two sets with ease, I called my photographer up from the court and we started prepping for a victory Facebook status and photo.

But after Calvin dropped the next two sets, the atmosphere had drastically changed.

I quickly drafted a second Facebook post and found a photo to use in case we didn’t come out on top.

I immediately told my photographer to go back to the court. Whether the photo was a player leaping with a joyful scream or a student in tears on the floor, I needed that photo.

After Calvin dropped the fifth set and St. Thomas became the national champion, my staff was heartbroken, and understandably, reluctant to approach any of the players after the game.

Why should we even cover the game? No one wants to read about Calvin losing. No one wants to hear from a player who worked months for this night, only to fall one set short of the national championship.

And as I stood on the confetti-covered court, watching the last of the somber Calvin fans leave the gym, I turned to my staff and said, “Because there’s a story to tell here.”

That night was one of the most exciting sporting events I’d ever been to. The game attracted a record-breaking crowd and an enormous student presence. These women worked for months and had an incredible season. It was our job to tell people about it.

How could we not cover that game?

When I told my photographer to get a photo of a player crying on the floor, it’s not because I’m heartless. It’s not because I’m intrusive. It’s not because I wanted Calvin to lose or I like seeing people cry.

It’s because that’s the best way I know how to help people share in the pain of these players, to help others understand how much this season meant to these women, and to try to explain both the disappoint and pride felt by so many Calvin fans.

While this example tugged on the heartstrings of our staff, I find it difficult to imagine what it must have been like in Connecticut this weekend.

If I thought approaching a defeated classmate was hard, try approaching a grieving parent or teacher.

And yet these emotions are real. The pain is real. The deaths are real. The danger is real.

And it’s up to journalists to help us share in that pain, feel their heartbreak, and understand the danger.

Of course, this comes with incredible responsibility. It is essential to respect these victims and leave them to grieve alone if they request that. The code of ethics from the Society of Professional Journalists emphasizes treating subjects as human beings deserving of respect.

But as I watch the coverage, I see parents willing to struggle to find words for the immense loss they feel. I see children trying to share their pain with a world that feels the brokenness of sin daily.

I see them reaching out for support from politicians, charities, and Christians across the country. I see them sparking a critical and much-needed conversation on gun control in America. I see them willing to do anything to make sure this never happens again.

How could we not tell this story?

Simply reporting the facts does not do this tragedy justice. It’s the heartbreak of a parent, the panicked face of a first-grader and the tears of a first-responder that allow us to truly understand this story.

And, while I know they do not do their jobs perfectly, I have the utmost respect for the people who have the difficult job of holding the microphone.

Reporters approach family after family, trying to find one that is willing to help America understand their pain. Photographers throw themselves into the panic so that we can understand the tragedy from the safety of a computer screen.

And just like first-responders who will go to counseling after this weekend, many journalists and photographers will too.

Not because they’re heartless, or because they’re intrusive. It’s not because they like to see children get shot.

It’s because we all need to understand the heartbreak and loss, see the courage and cowardice and hear the call to dialogue.

It’s because there is a story to tell, and we need the courage to tell it.

If you’re interested in the details of covering school shootings or interviewing children, try these links.

About the Author

Ryan Struyk

Ryan Struyk was the Chimes editor in chief for fall 2013. He's a senior studying mathematics and political science. Being a journalist means being both student and teacher of the world, and that’s why his job is the best one out there.

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