By David F. Sherman, managing editor
The Clarence Bee
NEWTOWN, Conn. — The news broke in a way that for those of my generation was Dallas-scary. At 11 minutes after 10 Friday morning, a community newspaper in New England posted the following on its Facebook page:
“State and Newtown police, ambulance, and emergency response personnel responded to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shortly after 9:30 a.m., Friday, following reports of a shooting. One child was carried from the school by a police officer, apparently seriously wounded. The other children in the school are exiting the school under state police protection. All of Newtown’s schools are in lockdown, and the private schools in town have been notified of an alleged shooting being reported at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Superintendent of Schools Janet Robinson said the schools were placed on lockdown the morning of Friday, December 14, ‘until we hear what is going on there.’ Dr. Robinson said it is best if parents do not try to call the district at this time, and the school district will release a message once further information is known. The situation is evolving.”
Suddenly, The Newtown Bee (no connection with the Bee Newspapers based in Williamsville) was immersed in an unspeakable tragedy. Twenty children and six teachers had been shot and killed at Sandy Hook.
Within minutes, Associate Editor Shannon Hicks, who doubles as a volunteer firefighter in her community, was front and center. Her photograph of a string of distraught children being led out of the building by law enforcement officers has become the defining image of the tragedy. It has the power to endure far into the future.
Hicks heard the first reports of a possible shooting by the simple act of monitoring her police scanner. As she pulled into the school driveway, she immediately began taking photos through the windshield of her car with one hand on the steering wheel and the other on her camera, according to an article published Saturday by the Poynter Institute.
Parents may find that photo difficult to view, thinking of how it could be one of their own children being led to safety — or left behind in classrooms once considered safe.
“I’m conflicted,” Hicks told Poynter. “I don’t want people to be upset with me, and I do appreciate the journalists who have commented saying, ‘We’re just documenting the news.’”
Those first few minutes must have seemed like centuries as police, medical and firefighting personnel descended on the school. Hicks put down her camera bag and put on her turnout gear to help in whatever way she could. Standing outside a school where ice cream socials and plays are the usual assignment, she now had a different mission. She was one individual helping others deal with incomprehensible anguish.
Her responsibilities evolved again within about 20 minutes. Her editor called her back to the office to coordinate breaking news coverage. Her journalistic talents could be put to work more effectively there rather than at the school, where the outcome had long since been decided. Like the night of the crash of Flight 3407 in Clarence Center, there was little first responders could do.
The newspaper found itself teetering on journalistic integrity and showing compassion for the families who have been reading it every week since 1877. The staff settled in to report the story as it unfolded, and got to work on a special edition that was published Monday. That’s what we do.
Back to the Hicks photo. Some criticized the newspaper and the Associated Press for releasing it. I say, it will speak volumes in our ongoing debate over gun control. It is blunt; it is reality. Consider the words of a New York Times columnist written 150 years ago regarding the public exhibition of photos taken by Mathew Brady after the Battle of Antietam.
“Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. Homes have been made desolate and the light of life in thousands of hearts has been quenched forever. Broken hearts cannot be photographed.”
Copyright 2012 Clarence Bee
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