After media horde swamps grieving Sutherland Springs, one journalist suggests: 'We can do better'

Coverage of Sunday's mass shooting at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, sparked a must-read opinion piece by Dallas Morning News journalist Lauren McGaughy.

"Dear Sutherland Springs, you deserve an apology from the news media" is the headline atop McGaughy's viral column.

I want to highlight McGaughy's powerful words as we dive into GetReligion weekend think-piece territory a little early.

But first, a bit of personal background: My first experience with the national news media descending on a community struck by tragedy came more than two decades ago when the unfathomable happened in Oklahoma City.

On the morning of April 19, 1995, I had just stepped off The Oklahoman’s eighth-floor newsroom elevator when we heard a giant boom and saw billowing black smoke in the distance. I was one of the reporters dispatched to the scene.

In all, 168 people died in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building — the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil until 9/11 six years later.

When I arrived downtown, I parked with no problem. Hours later, I found my car surrounded by news vans and television satellite trucks. This was the biggest news story in the world — and would be for weeks.

After the bombing, The Oklahoman's editors formed teams of reporters to focus on specific coverage areas. For example, one team focused on the recovery effort. Another handled developments in the investigation. My team worked to tell the stories of the victims. This was our community, and we felt a responsibility to put a face on everyone who died.

But The Oklahoman chose not to show up uninvited to victims' funerals or to pressure relatives to talk to us. Trust me, we made lots of mistakes along the way. But we did our best to treat victims' loved ones with care and compassion. Sadly, not everyone in the national media showed that same level of sensitivity. Many in our newsroom cringed at the get-the-story-first-no-matter-what mentality displayed by some out-of-town journalists.

A specific memory that I'll share before getting back to Sutherland Springs: I called the mother of a baby who died in the bombing and got the woman's answering machine. I left a message explaining who I was and letting her know that The Oklahoman was interested in interviewing her. I didn't hear anything for days. But when the woman finally called back, she thanked me for not pressuring her and for letting her decide when she was ready to talk. She complained about the harassment her family had received from the national media.

This was the lede on the April 28, 1995, story I wrote about the woman's daughter:

Fifteen-month-old Danielle Nicole Bell was asleep when she and her mother arrived at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building about 8:30 a.m. that tragic day.
When Deniece Bell, 28, lifted her daughter out of her car seat, Danielle opened her eyes and leaned her head against her mother's chest.
As the mom explained Thursday, the blue-eyed, light-brown-haired beauty liked to show affection that way.
Once inside the America's Kids Day Care, Deniece Bell said she kissed her baby on the forehead, handed her a cup of milk and hurried to work at the post office two buildings away.
"She didn't like to be away from me," Bell, a 1985 Douglass High School graduate, said of her daughter, who clutches a stuffed teddy bear in a treasured snapshot.
But Danielle didn't mind spending Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at the federal day care.

Later in my career — particularly in covering major tragedies for national news organizations such as The Associated Press and the Washington Post — I have struggled with my own role. Sometimes, I have contacted victims' families, even when I felt uncomfortable about it, under deadline pressure from editors. Other times, I have found ways around it.

In her Dallas Morning News piece, McGaughy makes a compelling case that there has to be a better way to cover news:

Dear Sutherland Springs,
When I drove into town Sunday afternoon, it was still quiet. Just a few hours had passed since the massacre at First Baptist, and only a handful of local journalists were there. By day’s end, dozens more had descended. By Monday, there were hundreds of us — reporters, producers and photographers from all over the world.
The media presence doubled the size of your grieving community, or so it seemed. You couldn’t park at the post office. It was jammed with news vans and satellite trucks, its lawn trampled by a half-dozen tents the big networks set up. You couldn’t get a quiet meal at the local cafe, where waitresses trying to get through their shifts were asked again and again to talk about the friends and family they had just lost.
It was miserably hot, even for Texas. But the gas station was out of sunscreen. We’d bought it all.
It was an invasion. It was too much.

She ends her letter to Sutherland Springs this way:

As journalists, our role as observers and investigators in times of tragedy is important. But so is our empathy and our humanity. As a profession, we must have a conversation about how best to chronicle horrors like this. We can do better.
To the families who opened up to us and put up with me, thank you. The media horde, myself included, owes you an apology. I hope you’ll soon find a quiet moment in which to mourn.
Lauren McGaughy

I know this much: The question McGaughy raises is important. Journalists — most of whom are fine, caring people — need to have a serious conversation, as McGaughy points out.

What is the answer? Is there an answer?

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