Local Tragedy, National Spotlight

What happens to a community when a major traumatic event turns life upside down? How do news organizations responsibly cover the event and help the community recover?

Major tragedies usually are tagged with names that become synonymous in people’s memories: 9-11, Oklahoma City bombing, Columbine, Katrina, Port Arthur massacre, the Tsunami.

In eastern Pennsylvania, the name has become “the Amish tragedy.” There, in a one-room schoolhouse in a Nickel Mines pasture, Charles Roberts killed five Amish schoolgirls, wounded five others, and destroyed the peacefulness of a small community. There, in its aftermath, some media members left an impression that will last a lifetime, imposing themselves on a culture they did not understand. There, the local and national media clashed again.

For two Amish couples who attended the recent “Trauma: Covering and Recovering” workshop in Lancaster, about 15 miles from Nickel Mines, the message that they wanted to send back to journalists was clear:

“The direct families ... are weary of the media, and they don’t want to answer questions anymore,” said one Amish woman, whose head was wrapped in the traditional white scarf. “They want to be left alone. They need to get through their grief.”

Her husband added: “It’s time to move on, and leave the families alone. Give them time to grieve.”

The couples asked that they not be identified or their images used, out of respect for their traditions. They sat among more than 50 journalists and others in the “Pressroom” restaurant, listened and discussed the changes in their lives since the tragedy. They talked about the “death of innocence” of their children who don’t sleep well at night anymore and now realize that “crazy people” can harm them.

While they don’t watch television or listen to radio, the Amish depend on newspapers for their information (except on Sunday when they don’t read newspapers either). They said they were anxious for news in the tragedy’s immediate aftermath and indicated respect for the media’s role in the coverage. They praised the local media for its sensitivity and respect of their culture, including the decision not to use photos that showed close-ups of their faces. (Officers at the workshop also indicated that the local media cleaned parking lots which were left littered by national media members.)

However, the Amish criticized national media members for harming them with wrong information and confronting them on their farms and offering them large sums of money for their personal stories.

Other stories included a journalist dressing up in a brown dress and carrying apple crisp in an effort to cross police lines. Stories of one journalist, dressed in a pink dress, trying to gain access to one of the girls’ funerals. (The Amish laugh at this one because an Amish woman would never wear a pink dress.) Stories of Amish horses being spooked by media trucks.

The barrage also upset the local media.

“I knew the circus was coming to town, but I didn’t know how big it was going to be,” said Lancaster Sunday News/Intelligencer photographer Vinny Tennis, who added that he was angered by the national media’s insensitivity toward the Amish.

The “circus” crowded the narrow streets in the Nickel Mines area that is dotted by farms where kerosene lanterns provide the only lights at night. Where buggies powered by horses and with bright reflectors on the back meander on the roads as the occasional car or truck whizzes by them. Where those who are not Amish are called “English.”

Only a few miles from Nickel Mines is the tourist trap of Interstate 30 that is lined by outlet malls and stores with names such as “Amish Stuff.” Just down the road from the auction house that became the gathering place for the media, you can see the pasture where the one-room schoolhouse once stood between two trees and was surrounded by a white picket fence. But if you go a mile down one road or another, you’ll see another of the schoolhouses and another. At least 170 are in the area, all on farmland and all accessible by the Amish children who walk from their homes to school.

However, near the auction house, only the two trees remain after the Amish tore down the schoolhouse in the middle of the night and replaced it with grass. Mules lazily graze nearby. Local journalists talk about how Charles Roberts may have stood by a Coke machine at the auction house on Oct. 2 and watched as the children walked into school that day. They wonder if the milk truck parked outside the auction house is the one that Roberts drove to deliver milk from Amish farms before he terrorized the community. They wonder why Roberts didn’t go to the schoolhouse that was much closer to his own home.

The shootings shocked the Amish community, the two couples said at the workshop, but the media onslaught scared and overwhelmed them. It also angered them because of the false reports about Amish customs, including reports that all Amish at the funerals had to touch the girls’ bodies and throw dirt on their coffins before they could go to heaven.

“It’s really false testimony. We feel these little girls’ souls went directly to heaven,” said one of the Amish women, who became emotional while talking. “Irresponsible journalists hurt the name of the whole media.”

According to Barb Monseu, president-elect of the National Center for Critical Incidents, it’s inevitable that another school tragedy will occur. She stressed that copycats do exist.

Monseu, a former school administrator responsible for Columbine High School and who worked with the media in the tragedy’s aftermath there, stressed the importance of balance in respecting what the public needs to know and the beliefs and culture of the region. She also stressed the importance of public officials working with the media, especially the local media, because: “They’re the ones who will be there, the ones who will care.

“Tragedies trump each other. We measure time by tragedies,” she said. “We need to find better ways to better understand the challenges of each other’s jobs and resolve ... misconceptions about each other’s interests and motives.”

As Monseu indicated, the inevitable will occur again. And again the media, both local and national, will face enormous pressure to cover a story that grips a nation, or the world. And again, as the media feed the frenzy of 24/7 news cycles, journalists will be forced to make snap decisions that could cost them years of credibility and respect over the immediate gratification of an exclusive or photo.

Lancaster Intelligencer Journal reporter Colby Itkowitz called it the “fine line between getting the story and maintaining your dignity.”

The next tragedy will most likely occur in a place that we least expect and create many more difficult choices for journalists.

As it did in a small community in Pennsylvania, where parents, brothers, sisters, grandparents, relatives and friends are trying to recover from “the Amish tragedy.” In a community known for its traditional values. Its spirit of forgiveness. Its desire to return to its peaceful ways, even after a tragedy trust it into the national spotlight.

When the next tragedy does occur, I hope that journalists will follow the advice of Lancaster New Era photographer Marty Heisey: “If it feels wrong, it’s wrong. If you feel in your heart that it’s wrong, then it’s wrong.”

Joe Hight, president of the Dart Center’s Executive Committee, spoke at the workshop that was sponsored by Lancaster Newspapers, the Pennsylvania Press Club and the Pennsylvania Women’s Press Association—South Central District. The workshop was coordinated by journalists Linda Espenshade and Maria Coole.  A special thanks to Lancaster New Era reporter Ad Crable for his tour of the Nickel Mines area. For a complete series about the tragedy and its aftermath by Crable and the Lancaster New Era, click here.