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Sandy Hook: In One Mother’s Story, a Lesson for Journalists

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Students from Sandy Hook Elementary School returned to class this week, although they were relocated to a different campus seven miles away. The Sandy Hook school in Newtown, Conn., the site of one of the worst school shootings in U.S. history, is likely to remain closed indefinitely. A gunman broke into the school last month and killed 20 first graders and six staff members, before taking his own life.

There’s been some remarkable reporting on the tragedy, but nothing more poignant than a profile of Veronique Pozner, whose son Noah was the youngest victim of the massacre. Writing for the Jewish newspaper The Forward, reporter Naomi Zeveloff crafts an intimate, painful, heart-wrenching portrait of a grieving mother. It wouldn’t surprise me if her work becomes required reading for students of narrative journalism.

And equally valuable reading is Zeveloff’s explanation of how she approached this difficult assignment, as published by Columbia University’s Dart Society blog. Her instincts as a journalist to “get” the story were balanced against the potential risk of contributing to the family’s grief  by publishing more than they might have really intended to share with a wider audience.

As Zeveloff explains:

“I worried about sharing what seemed to be the most personal, most painful details. Would I be unnecessarily exposing the family? Were these details gratuitously violent? Would I be shocking readers instead of informing them?”

While the story is graphic in its description of how badly damaged Noah’s body was by the gunman’s bullets, she now believes Noah’s mother shared those details to “give the public a clear picture of the brutality of the Sandy Hook shooting,” Zeveloff says.

On a related note, EWA recently held a webinar for reporters discussing how to handle interviewing children, including challenging situations such as Sandy Hook. The presenters included Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma, Columbia Journalism School Professor LynNell Hancock, and veteran education reporter Sarah Carr of the New Orleans Times Picayune.