What have we learned from Newtown?

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After the frenzied scramble comes, in time, self-examination.  It needs to be the other way round, says Cliff Lonsdale, president of the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma.

By Cliff Lonsdale

Much has been said and written about the media hoards that descended on Newtown, Connecticut, in the wake of the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre.

It was undeniably big news – news with a shockwave that reached around the world.

Now, as the last victims are laid to rest and Newtown struggles to understand why such devastation happened, and while Washington edges towards dealing with some of the issues surrounding gun control, many in the media are also struggling with the ethical questions the coverage raised.

The most troubling question is this: If traumatized children were interviewed without due care, stricken families pursued, incorrect information broadcast, is all this now simply part of the price we must pay for immediate news from our purveyor of choice? 

The good news, if I may use that term in this context, is that not all journalists at Newtown acted without thinking. The bad news is that some evidently did not sufficiently manage to restrain and temper their competitive urges. Inhumane conduct still produces bad journalism. It’s high time we all got over the notion that the best journalists are the ones who can function unaffected by the mayhem around them. The best journalists, in fact, are those who are affected by it, but still function.

It’s not as if journalistic organizations haven’t been saying this for years.  The Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma, the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma and many others have offered practical advice on techniques for interviewing trauma victims ethically, still getting the story.

The Canadian Association of Journalists ran a panel discussion just a few weeks ago which offered suggestions for best practice in interviewing trauma victims.  The examples they used ranged from holocaust and residential school survivors to more recent experiences in Afghanistan. The panel included Ted Barris, Carol-Anne-Davidson, Andrea Litvak and Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm and was moderated by CBC’s Esther Enkin, vice-president of the Forum.  

CAJ has just posted a full-length video of their panel on YouTube.  It’s well worth reviewing in the light of the Newtown massacre. 

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