December 12, 2013

Hilary Krieger is an editor in The Post’s editorial department and a former reporter for the Jerusalem Post. She is on Twitter at @hilarykrieger.

It was the worst sound I’d ever heard: shrieks that seemed to come from an animal but that I knew were human. They pealed through the Israeli hospital waiting room on Aug. 31, 2004, hours after the country’s latest bus bombing .

I eventually realized that these intermittent cries — shattering the hushed tones of the pallid souls huddled on benches and chairs around me, waiting to hear the fate of their loved ones — were the sign that, for one more family, a doctor had removed all hope.

As a newspaper reporter, it was my job to interview these family members at the first instant of their grief. Most moved aside to avoid me; some gave me dirty looks. I wondered if I should give up, and the prospect of leaving filled me with relief. But just then another grief-stricken family walked by, and a girl no more than 20, with fierce eyes and a tear-soaked face, saw my notebook and came toward me.

Tell them my story, she urged me. Tell them about my brother who was murdered today. Tell them what he was like. Tell them the price that the killers need to pay. Tell them.

When I began covering terror attacks in Israel during the second intifada, I expected to be seen as a vulture, someone swooping in on human tragedy for professional, and even monetary, gain. But while many victims’ relatives didn’t want to speak to the press — and I would never push a grieving person to talk — often there was someone grateful for the opportunity to describe the person he or she loved and had lost, to have something tangible, a story, to hold onto, to receive the support of the broader community by sharing the ordeal.

I was reminded of this experience this week when I read that Newtown First Selectman Pat Llodra, on behalf of her constituents, had asked the media to stay away from the Connecticut town on Saturday, the first anniversary of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. To my surprise, many outlets, including CNN, NBC and USA Today, agreed.

The desire of town residents for privacy is understandable, and journalists have a responsibility to be sensitive in their reporting, a sensitivity they have perhaps not always shown adequately in covering tragedies. Tim Gaughan of CBS News had it right when he was quoted in Sunday’s New York Times saying, “Our goal is to have the smallest footprint possible.” (The network later announced that it wasn’t planning to report from Newtown on the day of the anniversary.)

But to completely shut out the media goes too far. It means that those who do want to talk can’t, denying that form of catharsis to those who want it. It means that the event will be memorialized without the stories that can come only from being present at that moment, some of which would undoubtedly showcase hope, resilience and new undertakings.

Denying the media access to the ways Newtown is commemorating and healing also means that the story line of shooter Adam Lanza will inevitably receive more prominence.

The most moving, and memorable, article I’ve read on Newtown was an in-depth feature by The Post’s Eli Saslow six months after the shooting. It explored the unremitting grief of Mark and Jackie Barden, who lost their 7-year-old son, Daniel, and their resulting campaign for gun control. The family’s “purpose,” Mark said, is now “to force people to remember.” Talking to the media is part of that, and doing so imparts a more complete picture of Newtown. It would be a great loss for other, equally important stories to go untold.

That Newtown is coping with tragedy won’t change if the media aren’t there to report on it. But what will change is the precedent for coverage of such tragedies in the future.

In a country with a free press, how can a town, even a town in mourning, try to dictate coverage to the media? Could Boston, then, shut out reporters from next year’s commemmoration of the marathon bombing? What other places and events would be declared off-limits? Who else would then call for these limits to be imposed?

This is not some private family scandal; this shooting was and is a major news story. Its implications for gun policy, mental health treatment, trauma care and more are still reverberating. The broader public is entitled to know what is happening in Newtown at this juncture. This story is not just Newtown’s but the whole country’s.