The first of the Newtown narratives began appearing over the weekend. In the early wave, everyone was reading the Hartford Courant piece by Edmund H. Mahony and Dave Altimari, who began boldly with thunderous rounds” and shattered glass, and unfolded the story from there. The Washington Post’s Eli Saslow started his Sunday narrative with the image of the simple school ritual of attendance, and ended with the haunting idea of permanent absence. Using “the language of” the developing horror as an expository device − the language of the investigative reports, the first responders, the radio traffic, the school hallways − allowed him to quietly fold attribution into story:
But, most of all on Friday, there was the simple and uncomplicated language of an elementary school, where, at 9:35 a.m., an unfamiliar voice could be heard shouting over the loudspeaker:
“Put your hands up!”
The Post‘s Gene Weingarten, meanwhile, lauded this Post lede as a Hall of Famer:
A big part of successful narrative, deadline and otherwise, is being prepared for it. Cultivating a narrative state of mind helps journalists across the spectrum − writers, editors, visual journalists, radio storytellers − tell our most devastating stories as meaningfully as possible. As we’ve seen in tragedies past, solid breaking narratives often come from newsrooms that nurture the discipline. We asked Greg Moore, Pulitzer board co-chair and editor of the Denver Post, a staff that’s covered not one but two mass shootings (Columbine and Aurora), for best practices for Newtown and, God forbid, beyond. Here’s what he said:
- This narrative rises or falls with the details. Throw staffers at it. The more staffers you have on it the more patient you can be, and the reward is huge.
- I do concentric circles: Go for the people who were in the room or who know the people who were in the room; then the people just outside ground zero; then the first responders and so on. You can see it takes bodies to attack like that.
- Be sensitive. If people don’t want to talk, don’t press. We learned that from Columbine and cascading tragedies. Emotions are raw in the immediate aftermath, and the last thing some people are thinking is media. Sensitivity often pays off with a great interview down the road and gratitude from your community.
- This is where I take reporting over writing. Lay off the flourishes. The drama of the event is enough. Rely on the details. If you don’t have the details, you really don’t have a narrative. Keep reporting.
- Let everyone who is working any aspect of the story know that the narrative is a communal project. Everyone needs to contribute. You run across something, share it.
- If you have time, use the web to find people who can help flesh out the narrative. There’s lots of help out there. It should be among the first things you do.
- The narrative done right is the first public balm on the community wound. In most every case the narrative reveals the best of human nature. There are heroes if you try to find them, and incredible personal sacrifice. It is a very important story and approaching it with that in mind helps the end result.