Events that test the limits of the goal of restraint
Our first impulse was for restraint, but it is impossible to be fully restrained when 20 elementary schoolchildren are shot dead, along with teachers, a principal and other adults. Just writing that sentence alone feels crude and insensitive. But how else to describe the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School?
When the first uncertain reports of the shootings came across the wires last Friday morning and began to gather the shrill momentum of urgency on radio, television and the Web universe, our editors initiated a — sadly — familiar process for handling sensational shootings: Provide the reports on the Web, but do everything possible to limit speculation until facts are known. Avoid "screaming" headlines online that may demean the seriousness of the crime or foster morbid sensationalism. Be respectful of the trauma facing victims and survivors, and avoid calling too much attention to the identity of the perpetrator to minimize the allure to sick copycats. Plan for restrained play in the print editions, possibly not even on the front page.
As the horrible morning progressed, however, it became obvious that this heartbreak was too alarming to suppress. As disgusting as it feels to make such a macabre comparison, the emerging details at Newtown, Conn., bespoke a story beyond the realm even of a shooting spree in an Portland, Ore., shopping mall or the carnage in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater or at a Sikh temple in Milwaukee, Wis.
Restraint was still a watchword for us, but it was also clear that for this story, people would want every piece of information they could get. Information cannot minimize the scope of such a tragedy, but it is our first refuge against the unimaginable. Tell us this was not as bad as it sounds. Tell us this was done by some reckless madman whose motives, however repulsive, we can at least conceive of. Tell us how families, parents, communities react. Tell us this is something that couldn't happen in our town, in our school, in our lives.
And so, for four days we riveted our attention, along with yours, on Newtown. We've tried to stress sensitivity. To the extent possible in such intense circumstances, we stuck by our policy of limiting the use of the name and photograph of the shooter. Though we know photographs of the young victims add to the power of this story, we, like AP, rejected the risky and insensitive option of turning to Facebook or other online sources to publish pictures without permission of families.
Now the coverage turns to the poignant, the political, the stitching back together of lives and the social and legal responses aimed at finding some way to prevent such a horror from ever recurring. That process includes providing an outlet for you, as readers and community members. We see it in online commenting and in letters to the editor. I've also noticed it in an interesting form we don't have a natural avenue for — literature. Readers have been sending us their own poems and stories and those that others have blogged or passed along online as a means of sharing their remorse.
We don't generally have the space or the resources to facilitate that kind of writing, but the increase I've seen in these unsolicited offerings is an indicator of how personally people identify with such incomprehensible events and how we all long to find a way to share in the process of coming to grips with them.
Which brings us back to the impulse toward restraint — and the restrictions a newspaper imposes and confronts as it seeks to tell a story no one would really want to tell or, for that matter if any of us had an alternative, to hear. It is, in short, disconcerting to see how that impulse itself has limits. What a sad thing it is to contemplate the kind of event that tests them.
• Jim Slusher, email@example.com, is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
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