Suffering From Media Onslaught

"The story is over. The families are burying their loved ones. Please leave our towns."

These were the sentiments of State Representative DebraLee Hovey during a Capital memorial service December 19, but they represent the comments of a growing throng of Newtown residents, merchants and officials, as well as a number of survivors who have contacted The Bee in the days since the Sandy Hook School rampage.

For several stretches of time beginning early Monday morning, December 17, most of the police band radio traffic focused on dispatching officers to remove media representatives from areas of private property that were being overrun by news crews, many with support staff toting pop-up kiosks, cameras and arriving in huge vehicles that are choking off the traffic flow of customers to local businesses.

The many shops in Sandy Hook Center are being particularly affected by this crush of media and support vehicles, with the Toy Tree among those hardest hit. At a time of the year that can make a financial difference between economic survival and closure, that small boutique has remained devoid of clients who can't, or refuse to try to, reach it through stagnant traffic on Church Hill Road.

And the few that brave the sometimes hourlong commute that on normal days can take as little as a few minutes are stymied because upon arrival, there is no place for them to park because of the combination of media vehicles mixing with well-wishers arriving in town to visit a makeshift memorial on the still closed Riverside Road adjacent to Sandy Hook School.

On Wednesday morning, Police Chief Michael Kehoe responded to the pleas of Sandy Hook and other businesses affected, like the Toro restaurant and the Citgo Gas Stop, where camera crews continue to line the curb attempting to get footage and report on the comings and goings of Hawley School students, as well as mourners attending services at St Rose of Lima Church.

He said an officer and supervisor would be canvassing businesses to determine that those owners wanted media and vehicles to be cleared off their property, but at the same time acknowledged with a tone of frustration that reporters and their support vehicles had a right to occupy public property to a certain degree.

"We started looking at legal violations related to parking, like blocking traffic with their large trucks, obstructing driveways or traffic control devices, and those in violation were told to move," Chief Kehoe said Thursday. He said the trucks were being asked to park in an area of Washington Street near the Exit 11 overpasses that has sufficient room for many oversized vehicles, but is still relatively close to Sandy Hook Center.

One residential owner adjacent to the Sandy Hook Volunteer Fire & Rescue Company headquarters and its neighboring memorial tells of media crews smashing decorative fencing, and leaving behind so much trash that a truck and crew had to be called in to scoop it all up and take it away.

Selectman Will Rodgers told The Bee Tuesday that visiting media simply must be more aware and respectful of the areas they are working, which are not designed for such an intense amount of use and traffic.

"The press are choking the life out of our Sandy Hook businesses," he said.

Even Senator-Elect Chris Murphy contacted the local newspaper from Washington to clarify how bad the situation has become, and vowed to contact local and state officials to try and determine what could be done.

Mike Burton, who represents a consortium of Sandy Hook merchants, and who is a commercial property owner himself, said the media's presence is a double-edged sword because its reporters are responsible for eliciting the incredible outpouring of support from the national and global communities.

"But there is a lot of negative affect from the media to Sandy Hook in terms of loss of business," he said. "The amount of traffic is discouraging people from going to Sandy Hook to shop."

Toy Shop Irony

First Selectman Pat Llodra said while she was not promoting any one business that might be suffering, she thought is was incredibly ironic that while a staggering number of toys and gifts are flowing into the community, the village's only toy shop could be pushed to the brink of closing because customers cannot access either the store or parking. Her office has been fielding frequent and concerned calls for some relief from other area gift shops, boutiques, salons and the local laundromat as well.

"I hope as soon as people can get in there, that Newtown residents respond to Sandy Hook and other local small businesses to complete their final holiday shopping," Mrs Llodra said as she headed to yet another funeral for one of the shooting victims.

Steve Burgard, former LA Times editor and now the director of the School of Journalism at Northeastern University and professor of media ethics, agreed wit Mr Burton saying that the attention the press is bringing to this story is critically important. But he is also dismayed at hearing how the media's arrival has also brought hardship on the very community they are reporting about so glowingly.

"Unfortunately the scope and suddenness of this event in a small town unprepared for such a surge of media is taking its toll," he told The Bee. "The media must make every effort to understand that even town officials have not been able to respond to these concerns because they are grieving and attending funerals. And maybe the media themselves have to figure out ways to make themselves less intrusive to the community."

As police dispatches regarding media intrusions at the homes of survivors, emergency responders, and others ramped up, officials and victims' acquaintances contacted The Bee pleading for the newspaper to appeal to its colleagues to take a few steps back from proceedings.

Through its affiliation with the New England Newspaper and Press Association, an appeal was distributed nationwide through NENPA and other sister press associations in the hope that assignment editors and outlet managers would reign in some of the more overzealous representatives that were playing a role in painting most of the invading press in a less than complimentary fashion.

"As a professor of media ethics, I've never seen a situation where the local paper is appealing to the larger press establishment to monitor their behavior," Mr Burgard said. "But this is always a concern in situations where there is a big story and the media comes swarming."

Looking For Morsels

The former LA Times journalist said in these cases, when there is limited access to law enforcement information or first-hand sources close to the incident, "everyone ends up combing every inch of territory for morsels, and in some cases overstep their bounds."

At the same time, Mr Burgard offered high praise for a number of news outlets for their reporting. He singled out CNN's Wolf Blitzer who normally reports with professional dispassion.

"I was struck by how much even Wolf Blitzer appeared to be moved by the tragedy of this story," the media ethics professor said.

"The media is also a force for great good, but it also has the capacity to do great damage," he said. "This is not a case where there are presidential campaign visits going on, and there are professional handlers and event planners in place to manage the media coming in," he added. "It's disturbing."

NENPA Vice President Gary Farrugia, publisher and president of the New London Day said his community has certainly seen the crush of international media in the days following a controversial Supreme Court decision on eminent domain, as well as during Presidential visits to the Groton submarine base and Coast Guard Academy.

"But we've certainly never experienced anything the likes of which you folks in Newtown are experiencing," he said. "Even after the eminent domain decision, we never saw the type of invasion you are having."

Mr Farrugia said The Day sent reporters, photographers, and a videographer to Newtown to cover the story, "but we don't operate in that Hollywood-like environment of all those TV stations with their extensive staging."

But he admitted that even print reporters toting no more than a notebook could still be invasive when they are competing for information with hundreds of other reporters responding to a single incident such as the one Newtown faced December 14.

"That said, we always expect our staff to operate with sensitivity to the immediate victims and the community," Mr Farrugia said.

On Wednesday, even the normally media-shy volunteer ambulance corps decided to try and provide courtesy access to its volunteers, some of whom were on the very front lines in the minutes following the shooting. After announcing an 8 pm press conference, reporters began showing up uninvited by early afternoon and the volunteers were pressed into opening their facility for interviews much earlier than planned.

But the news of access spread and soon, media vehicles began flooding the ambulance garage parking area that is set aside for volunteers responding to emergency calls. By 1:30 pm, members of the company had hastily drew up and posted huge signs stating "No More Interviews."

More stories like this: Sandy Hook, 12/14, media
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