In the days following the schoolyard shootings in Jonesboro, Arkansas in March 1998, the community struggled to cope with the reality that four children and a teacher had been killed and 10 others wounded in an ambush by two boys with semi-automatic guns. It was a tragic story of the kind that attracted extraordinary national and international coverage. More than 70 US and international news organizations sent more than 200 journalists to cover the story.
As days passed, the journalists departed and the people of Jonesboro settled into a period of grieving. They wrestled with many unanswered questions including reactions to the intrusive experience of having so many journalists in town trying to report on the tragedy.
At the Freedom Forum’s Media Studies Center in New York City, where I was executive director, we also talked about the performance of the press. Specifically, we wondered whether the people of Jonesboro thought the press had been fair. We thought a trip to Jonesboro might yield some answers.
Three weeks after the shootings, we joined forces with The Jonesboro Sun and the College of Communications at Arkansas State University to host a public forum where the community was invited to talk about their perceptions of how the press had covered the story.
About 300 attended the “Speak Out.” Many who came forward to share their thoughts had specific criticisms of the coverage: intrusive behavior by journalists armed with microphones and cameras; invading the privacy of victims; reliance on children as news sources, and drawing quick conclusions about the character of life in a rural, southern town---a perception that was deeply resented as an unfair stereotype.
Others who spoke recognized the important role of the press in telling this story and in helping the community as it sought to absorb the tragedy and move on with life. The local newspaper, The Jonesboro Sun, was praised repeatedly for the balance, the accuracy and help that its coverage provided. The editor, John Trout, later explained to us that “the victims are the entire community and we are going to focus our coverage on the victims.”
The intense and wide-ranging discussion that evening suggested a further examination of how the press reported this story. In the weeks that followed the Freedom Forum tracked down reports of inappropriate behavior by individual journalists. We interviewed victims and thoughtful observers of the newsgathering. We talked with journalists who covered the story, and to their editors or news directors. We assessed the coverage of The Jonesboro Sun, national print media and regional and national television news organizations.
Our purpose was to learn the lessons of the Jonesboro school shootings and to share them with journalists and the public in the belief that from experiences such as this, we might better understand the role and responsibilities of a free and fair press.
The story of Jonesboro reminded us how directly the news affects everyone. When examined through the prism of fairness, the news media’s performance in Jonesboro received generally good marks as well as lessons for everyone. Some of the lessons are specific to the basics of good journalism that, if followed, can contribute to greater understanding between the news media and the public.
A critical lesson that has carried over to the coverage of each gun-related tragedy in the 14 years since Jonesboro is that trust is the bedrock of the relationship between the news media and the community. It enables public officials to deal openly with journalists by providing information that allows the story to be told quickly, completely and accurately.
Digital technology has given journalists a remarkable capacity today for immediacy in their reporting. This was so apparent in watching how the coverage of the horrific school shooting in Newtown unfolded. This gift of speed reinforces the enduring truth that the value of trust remains as essential as ever.
Bob Giles is commentary editor of GlobalPost. He is a former newspaper editor and, at the time of the Jonesboro tragedy, was senior vice president of The Freedom Forum and executive director of its Media Studies Center in New York City.