How Did They Report the Lanza Story?
Hartford Courant reporters Alaine Griffin and Josh Kovner have spent the last two months digging deep into the story of troubled shooter Adam Lanza and his relationship with his mother. How hard was it to report this story in a town worn out by the media? And how has the trauma of what happened affected them?
FRONTLINE spoke with Griffin and Kovner about how they broke new ground on the story, the challenges of covering such a heavy topic and what’s been most surprising.
Josh Kovner is a reporter with the Hartford Courant, which he joined in 1996 after working at the Bristol Press and New Haven Register. He was a member of the Courant’s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage team on the lottery killings in 1999, and covers environmental regulation, court cases, elections and major breaking news stories for the Courant. He is also a journalism instructor at Southern Connecticut State University.
[question]What was the climate in the Courant‘s newsroom as word came out of what had happened at Sandy Hook Elementary, less than an hour away?[/question]
Josh Kovner: Initially the full import of something like this was not appreciated. At first it’s a shooting, and then it’s some fatalities. The information comes out in stages, so the realization that this was a world-class massacre, that this was something that had perhaps never occurred before in history at any elementary school in the world, dawned on all of us at some point into the coverage. When it did, that realization came with a very palpable, powerful emotion. It’s hard to get your mind around this evil, to appreciate or understand or imagine this level of violence. This indescribable rampage. …
That it was children and their educators made it almost impossible to understand. There was emotion in the newsroom. There were people who really grimaced and winced and felt this was a smack in the gut because they are parents and everyone identifies with this.
Alaine Griffin: Early on, law enforcement officials weren’t saying much. We weren’t hearing very much about how many people were actually killed. As the hours went by and a number didn’t come out, journalists that had been around for a while started to suspect that numbers would be worse than originally thought. But when we heard the numbers — 20 of which we learned were children — it was absolutely incomprehensible. We knew then that no crime story that reporters like Josh and I have covered for the past two decades or more would ever be more horrific than this.
[question]Tell me a little bit about proximity as well. Just an hour away from the Hartford Courant‘s offices, did the tragedy at Sandy Hook elementary school strike close to home for Courant staff? ….[/question]
Kovner: Bill Leukhardt is a longtime reporter at Hartford Courant. His stepdaughter was substitute teacher Lauren Rousseau, [who] was in the first classroom where the slaughter began. Adam Lanza, after blasting his way in [and] killing the principal and other adults, went into Lauren Rousseau’s classroom and began killing people, began killing other adults. So there you have it: There you have a friend and a staff member whose loved one was cut down in this. I ended up doing a profile of Lauren Rousseau with [Bill’s wife and Lauren’s mother] Terri Rousseau’s help, which I thought was pretty big of them.
[question]Alaine, in the film you talk about how the people of Newtown are just worn out by the media, which flooded the town immediately after news broke. What was that media frenzy like?[/question]
Griffin: I think Newtown’s proximity to New York made it even more of a media crush. I actually had some national reporters tell me that. I have never seen so much media, and we’ve had some pretty big stories here in Connecticut.
The media, they were camped out on front lawns of residents who lived near the school. There were tents and satellite trucks in the driveways of residents who lived near the school. Police had to block off streets.
Newtown is this little tiny village. It has little streets. It has a little brook that runs underneath the town at some parts. There are little shops, little boutiques. And all of a sudden they have this media crush come upon their town. I think the town was already reeling from what had happened there, and then to have this media onslaught, it just became too much to take for the residents.
Initially, [right off] the bat there were erroneous reports going out.
Early on, some people [were] reporting that Ryan Lanza [Adam Lanza’s older brother] was the shooter. We had a source telling us that it wasn’t him, and that, though his I.D. was found, we were told early on to be careful because a source we had was a friend of Ryan Lanza’s on Facebook.
There were reports that Adam had been buzzed into the school, that his mom worked at the school, that the principal had buzzed Adam into the school. There was even some talk that there was a parent who had done the shooting. That made the news, as well. There was also some reports of a possible second shooter in the woods. There was also some reports that the shooter’s girlfriend was found dead in her apartment somewhere. …
Then that got matched with early reports [about] Nancy Lanza, and how she was a paranoid doomsday prepper, keeping food and guns in preparation for an economic collapse in the country. There were a number of things going on out there that really made our reporter even more essential to try and find out what was real and what wasn’t.
[question]How hard was it to correct misinformation or to clarify the story?[/question]
Kovner: Parts of it were erroneous. It just took time. It took time to convince people to talk to us after they’d already spoken. But actually the people that we spoke with were people trying to correct the record early on, weren’t people [who] had contributed to the errors. And some people, even though they had done what they need[ed] to do, just wanted to talk again. Some of that effort at correcting wore on them a little bit. They felt they’d already done what they could do, and when we came to them, we did break a little ground and talk to people who hadn’t been approached before. …
[question]You managed to get access to people who knew the Lanza family, some of them speaking for the first time. Can you tell me a little about gaining that access or overcoming reluctance to talk?[/question]
Griffin: That’s one of the hardest parts of journalism, convincing someone to talk about a sensitive topic. Every day you get a lot of people who want to talk to you to get their idea out there, to get their cause out there. But [with] stories like this, there is a major reluctance to want to talk about it and want to be associated with a story like this.
I think in our case the people that wanted to speak to us were people who felt that some information needed to come out that hadn’t been reported.
One of the things we heard very early on was how Nancy Lanza wasn’t really being included as a victim in this tragedy. The thought of that did prompt some people who wanted to talk to us.
But getting people to talk to you in a story like this it is very difficult. You need to walk a fine line [of] being aggressive and trying to get that information, versus being a human being and understanding how difficult it is for someone to talk at such a crucial time.
Kovner: There’s also a sense that you have to convince people that there’s a value to them talking, there’s a value to getting them to chime in, to have one more voice in a whole huge chorus of voices on this. One guy I talked to for 30 minutes was telling me why he didn’t want to talk. I almost had him. He kept telling me he didn’t want to. He was adamant and he kept telling me he didn’t want to participate. One of the reasons he cited was that he had known Nancy, liked Nancy, worked with Nancy, knew family that had lost children, worked for them, liked them, and didn’t want to be caught in the middle. He didn’t want to be seen as taking sides in any way. I had to leave it with him like that, because I couldn’t convince him otherwise.
[question]This is obviously a very heavy and exceptional story, perhaps heavier than anything you’ll likely cover again, and you’ve both been dedicated to covering it since the news broke. How has the trauma of what happened weighed on you as you’ve been reporting the story?[/question]
Kovner: You’d have to stay a little bit at arm’s length, or you wouldn’t be able to write the story.
It’s taken a toll in terms of the length of time. It hasn’t been a lot of time. It’s been about two months.
But there’s an expectation that we come up with something that others haven’t come up with. We may have done that, in some respects and in other respects we haven’t. There’s the weight of expectation.
There’s knowledge that’s both helpful and daunting that this is only the start and we’re going to be expected to continue after the [Courant] story runs and after the documentary runs, we’ll still be on this.
Griffin: For me, when I’m reporting these kinds of stories, I always think about an image that somebody gives me. I always think of people’s last moments, and what they were thinking and what they saw in the last moments. Those are the things that I think about in stories like this.
I also think about things people told me about the victims. I think about the people left behind. I guess for me it’s just thinking of the victims’ last moments. Thinking of images and replays of people’s lives that I do think about beyond just reporting the story that get to me.
Kovner: And sometimes in situations like this, I think about how one would tweak the script and have it not happen. You might have Adam struggle to continue and finish high school instead of being pulled out at 16. You might have him finish college in just one year. And then you might have him working in some technical field and fashioning some kind of life. He had some conditions and it wouldn’t be a life that we could all identify with, but it would be some kind of life. And I think to myself: “Why didn’t that happen? What occurred in the real life script that led to this explosion of violence and is there a way to understand it?”
[question]What was the biggest challenge in reporting this story?[/question]
Kovner: Aside from getting people to talk to us, and aside from the pressure to get something that no one else had, then there’s writing a story after all this.
At some point you have to sit down with six notebooks and a two briefcases full of files and write a story that is going to engage tens of thousands of people. What do you put in? What do you not? How much do we know? How do we know that? Who told us that? Almost line by line. While we’ve done that before, this is that line-by-line process on a larger scale.
Working with FRONTLINE was a new experience. Alaine has done a lot of television segments, but it was a new experience for us to be part of the film documentation of several weeks of reporting. So that was a learning experience.
Griffin: Sometimes when you’re working on sensitive stories like this, a lot of what you’re doing is hashing it out before. I think the cameras following us as we’re trying to negotiate a story was a challenge for me. I’m usually on my own, usually not even with another reporter, on the phone, in my car, knocking on someone’s door. So having people with me as I’m reporting, that was a challenge for me.
[question]What surprised you most as you were working on this?[/question]
Griffin: In addition to residents in Newtown being tired of the media, I was surprised at the reaction from people who really want to know more about this story. And though there’s sort of this mood out there that we want the media to go away, that we don’t want them to be here anymore, there’s still a true desire to know what might have triggered this shooting. There’s a desire to know more about Adam Lanza. There’s a desire to know why these wonderful educators and precious children were killed. And the why of that lies in Adam and his mother, Nancy. While we’re offering this story two months after the shooting, Josh and I know there’s a lot of reporting— we were surprised at the desire by those in Newtown who want us to keep going with this.
Kovner: I agree. I don’t know if surprised is the right word, but the fact that there’s an audience for this story, and I think it’s going to continue, is encouraging. It gives you a reason to keep going.
We had a workplace shooting at a Hartford beer distributor, where I think it was nine people killed, and the real wide audience of that story lasted a matter of days. It was a workplace shooting involving adults. Horrendous, but it happens. The year before, the lottery shootings, where a worker at headquarters killed four people? That person was a state employee. … This story, certain aspects of it are going to stay around for a long time.
Griffin: One of the things that’s heartening by this partnership is the fact that it shows that media outlets like Hartford Courant and FRONTLINE want to go further than the parachute reporting you often see in tragedies like this. With cutbacks and layoffs and the decimation of newsrooms across the country, it’s good to know that there can be partnerships like this that seek to find answers to very important questions in stories that come about in newsrooms across the country. If partnerships between media outlets is the way to get the answers to these questions, then I’m all for the media working together to get the best stories out there.