Within hours of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, on Friday, social media and the news media was exploding with information. Much of it was bad or incomplete, but as the hours passed, the picture of what really happened at the school started to come together.
To be sure, it will be quite a while as police investigators continue their work that the world will only know the full extent of what happened and how it all unfolded.
But that is secondary to what also started to happen throughout the day on Friday. As is almost always the case when big news events happen, networks and stations “go live” throughout the day even when there are gaps in the flow of new information. They fill the time by talking, in this case, to psychologists, school security experts, seasoned police investigators, some of whom may have investigated the shootings at Columbine or Virginia Tech.
They do all of this for two reasons, one is commercial and the other is human nature. The commercial reason is that television news thrives on major tragedies like this. People tune in en masse to find out what’s going on. Ratings skyrocket, and television news operations work to rise to both the business and the social challenges.
The social challenge is the human nature component of the coverage. At Sandy Hook, 26 children and adults were murdered. Twenty of the victims were children, most of whom were kindergarteners.
Just knowing this is enough to cause a distraction in anyone’s day whether they have kids or not. Parents of young children across the country couldn’t stop thinking of their own. Parents of grown children have crisp memories of their children at an age when on a mid-December day their kids were thinking of Santa Claus and Rudolph, and not what danger may loom in this world.
When the news broke of what had taken place at the school, all other media coverage took a back seat, it became less important. This story jumped to the front. No one really wanted to hear more about the debate over the fiscal cliff or the latest electronics gadgets on sale for the holiday.
They wanted to know what happened, perhaps why it happened. They needed to process it. When a tragic event happens like this, one Newtown cleric said when he was interviewed, it doesn’t cause him to lose faith in God, but it does make him wonder about human beings who could do this.
So we watch. In the process, the news coverage may not lead to a better understanding of the perpetrator or of the fairness of life. But it does allow us to absorb it all and let us cope. News has a healing power, and that’s why so many watch even when they may not want to.
People saturate themselves with the information, the details, the opinions of experts, and they come away with at least enough understanding to carry on with their lives. And because of the news coverage, they never forget events like this. For better or worse, it becomes part of their individual consciousness as well as the consciousness of the nation.