This year's Peabody Award winners included efforts by four stations. This week, the focus is on the comprehensive coverage of the Dec. 14, 2012, massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., by NBC-owned WVIT Hartford, Conn. Last week, we looked at KMGH Denver’s Investigating the Fire and KNXV Phoenix's Ford Escape: Exposing a Deadly Defect.
Local News Peabody Winners Up Close, Pt. 2
This year’s Peabody Award winners includes NBC-owned WVIT in Hartford-New Haven, Conn., for its comprehensive coverage of the Dec. 14, 2012, massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. WVIT was the first broadcaster at the scene the morning of the shooting spree, providing the initial reports seen both by both in-market and national viewers.
Three other broadcasters were also among the 2012 winners: You can read about the winning reports produced by Scripps’ KMGH Denver and KNXV Phoenix and Dispatch’s WTHR Indianapolis in previous Air Checks.
Here’s an overview of how WVIT’s coverage of Tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School unfolded:
The morning of Dec. 14 quickly devolved from unremarkable to unfathomable for the WVIT news team, which, with rapid and unwavering response to early reports, became the first broadcaster in the country to report the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings that day — and provide viewers across the country the earliest images from the scene of the massacre.
“It’s still kind of a blur,” says News Director Mike St. Peter. “By all accounts the day started out very normally.”
That all started to change, however, just minutes into the news team’s daily 9:30 a.m. editorial meeting, during which assignment editor Danielle Poulin reported “a crackle on the scanner” indicating some sort of police activity in Newtown, a Connecticut town about 45 miles southwest of WVIT in West Hartford, St. Peter says.
Although the initial report seemed routine enough “that it didn’t get a lot of attention,” more compelling information pointing to a school shooting came in over the scanner just minutes later, prompting “a reflex action right away,” he says.
Everyone in the newsroom at the time — a relatively small group of producers, assignment editors and news managers — sprung immediately to action, hitting the phones, trying to connect with sources to learn more.
Less than a half-hour later — by 10:04 a.m. to be exact — WVIT newspeople had enough confirmed information to go on-air, breaking into the Today Show to report the only thing they knew for sure: that there had been a shooting at a Newtown school and that more information would be coming.
In doing so, WVIT became the first TV station in the country to report the crime, although the extent of its horrific nature was not yet known.
“We still didn’t know the depth of the tragedy we were dealing with,” St. Peter says. “But just from the little bit on the scanner we were able to get … and the tension in people’s voices, we could sense that there was something really serious going on at that school.”
More information came in just several minutes later and the local news team broke into Today two more times over the next 15 or so minutes — to report first that the Newtown schools were on lockdown and then the evacuation of Sandy Hook. WVIT started running a news crawl at the bottom of the Today show screen. The digital team started Tweeting updates.
But by 10:34 “we were quite certain that this was an unusual event taking place” and WVIT launched its wall-to-wall coverage of the Newtown shootings, which continued as the story unfolded throughout the day until midnight.
The strong relationship the WVIT news department had with State Police Lt. Paul Vance — who by the end of that day would be well known to TV viewers around the country as the source of Sandy Hook information – paid off at the outset of station’s nonstop Newtown coverage, when Vance, in his first live interview that day, confirmed “an active shooter situation,” St. Peter says.
At some point before 11 a.m., St. Peter glanced at the newsroom monitors and saw that his team’s reporting on the shooting was being broadcast on MSNBC and WNBC New York as well as their own station. “It really meant that we were a primary point of coverage not only for our local viewers, but for viewers around the country,” he says.
Around that same time, WVIT reporter Liz Dahlem and photographer John Senecal arrived in Newtown. They were the first broadcast journalists to see Sandy Hook for themselves.
Dahlem had spent much of the 50-minute ride on Twitter “to try to get a sense of the scene” only to find chaos when she got there. Cars were “everywhere,” parked on lawns, she says. “One of my clearest memories of the day was watching the parents sprint down the street trying to access Sandy Hook.”
Senecal couldn’t park their truck close enough to the school to get a live shot so the team split up: Dahlem called in a report, describing the turmoil surrounding Sandy Hook for viewers over the phone; Senecal set up a bonded cellular “backpack” system to capture video of it.
Senecal’s initial images — the first captured by any broadcaster — provided viewers around the country their first look at the horrific scene of the massacre, with ambulances and parents running in hopes of finding their children safe. That footage would continue to be broadcast throughout the day.
Dahlem and Senecal soon got help, as WVIT’s presence in Newtown expanded as the story did. Before noon, the station had another 12 reporters and photographers in Newtown, dispersed to essential press conferences and places like the local hospital.
The station also started sharing resources with other NBC-owned media as they arrived on the scene using, for instance, aerial footage from WNBC’s helicopter and information obtained by network reporters.
But as the story grew bigger, the challenges in covering it did, too. Rumors started flying about the identity of the shooter and how the massacre occurred, which WVIT aggressively kept off-air unless verified, St. Peter says. At one point, the station cut the audio during a live interview when the individual — either a Sandy Hook parents or student — said Principal Dawn Hochsprung was among the dead, which had not yet been corroborated.
“People could not find out about it this way, whether it was true or not,” St. Peter says. “We just wanted to make sure we were right.”
Reporters also had to strike the tenuous balance between covering the story in ways that were sensitive to victims while also doing their job. “It was gut wrenching at one level and also instructive and important to understand the depth of the story for our viewers,” St. Peter says.
Doing that included speaking with Sandy Hook children, who were interviewed with their parents consent — and, in this case, presence — under NBC policy. One boy described seeing a teacher shot. “They were eyewitnesses to history,” St. Peter says.
Digesting the heartbreak as the toll of the murder started to mount — 20 children and six adults were slain — was a challenge all its own, too.
“There were parents who rushed to the firehouse only to find out they would never see their children again,” Dahlem says. “We watched as each parent, one by one, came out of that firehouse after hearing the devastating news.”
WVIT ended its Dec. 14 wall-to-wall coverage of Newtown at midnight, although the story continued in full force through the following weekend, including President Obama’s vigil for victims. It continues nearly daily, as new information about the mass murder — and efforts to stop another from happening — emerge. Just last week, Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy signed the country’s toughest gun law.
But neither the four months since the shooting, nor the multitude of stories that have ensued, has diminished it.
“You try to be prepared for anything in the news business, but I know no one is prepared when you’re dealing with the death of children,” St. Peter says. “This was the kind of story that gets to everybody.”
St. Peter says that while he certainly is “humbled” by his new department winning a prestigious Peabody Award, “these are not the circumstances under which you want to express too much pride.”
He says anchor Gerry Brooks summed it up best, when he spent 10 seconds on-air announcing the win. “We would gladly give it back to change history,” St. Peter says.