Jacqueline Smith: Telling an emotional story
Updated 10:48 am, Thursday, December 27, 2012
DANBURY — One afternoon in March five years ago, Lauren Rousseau bounded -- she didn't just walk, she bounded -- into our newsroom on Main Street holding high a bouquet of mylar balloons.
The balloons were for her mother, Terri, a copy editor who sits one desk behind me. Lauren knew the path to her mother's desk well. She wanted to surprise her mother for her birthday, even though it wasn't a milestone one that year.
The newsroom where Terri has worked for nearly 20 years knew Lauren. Many longtime reporters here had watched her grow up. We are a close newsroom.
Now people throughout the state, the country, the world, know Lauren's name. She will forever be linked to Sandy Hook Elementary School, where she went to work on Dec. 14 in her role as a permanent substitute and that morning greeted 6- and 7-year-old first-graders.
The news from Sandy Hook that morning initially was spotty.
Shortly after 9:30 a.m., reporter Libor Jany heard unconfirmed reports of a shooting at the school. He called emergency contacts -- yes, a shooting, no word on any possible injuries -- wrote a few paragraphs for the web and raced over to the scene with photographer Mike Duffy.
I was at Dawn's Pizzazz in Danbury and looked at the TV mounted on the wall after a hairdresser gasped. A shooting at a school in Newtown? My hairdresser stopped blow-drying my hair so I could grab my iPhone and call Libor. He was on Interstate 84 by then.
At first, we wondered in the newsroom whether it was an angry spouse targeting one person, as sometimes happens. Maybe someone else got in the way. Maybe people were just injured. Journalists sort out speculation and rumors to get the facts to readers as quickly and accurately as possible.
Our job to do so that day would test every professional fiber of our being.
Before 10 a.m., a second reporter headed out to the Sandy Hook firehouse. Other media began to collect; police would not let reporters inside. In the newsroom, reporters worked the phones, researched who worked at the school.
A producer from a New York station called, asking if we could get video for his 11 a.m. broadcast update. Later calls flooded in from other media -- one was from Norway -- asking for photos, begging for interviews. We had our own job to do.
The work of a journalist is challenging. Sandy Hook was a crime scene. Police divulged little; we had to observe, talk to everyone we could about what had happened.
A breaking news story can be confusing. One man was seen with handcuffs in a police cruiser. (Two shooters?) Danbury police surrounded a maroon-colored van on Crosby Street. We heard that police in surrounding towns had stopped as many as 20 maroon-colored vans. What was the connection, who were they looking for?
Newtown and state police were over on Yoganada Street; it was blocked off. What was going on there? Is it connected to the shootings? Later, we all learned, this is where Adam Lanza lived, where he shot his mother in the head that morning before going to the neighborhood elementary school.
Reports came out that at the school some people were shot, maybe three, could be fatalities.
As we worked with urgency to get the news, reporters and editors who knew Lauren well said to each other in low voices: Lauren works at that school.
By noon, the scope of the tragedy was known. In the newsroom we watched the news conference on TV as police confirmed 26 dead in the school, and 20 of them were children.
Some cried. As the day went on we focused on news gathering and held out fragile hope for Lauren. Darkness came early; hopes dimmed.
Some reporters took brief breaks to visit Terri, who had come into the office for a while before returning to her home a few blocks away.
Her worst fear for her 30-year-old daughter was not confirmed until after 1 a.m.
On Saturday reporters were in Newtown, trying to talk with neighbors, friends. Doors slammed, some people shouted at them, police blocked them off. Nerves were on end in town.
But we are journalists, with a job to do.
One of our responsibilities was to tell readers about the lives of the victims. Let them be more than numbers to those who did not know them. We tried to do so with sensitivity and respect.
Every time I saw the photo of a bright, usually smiling, little child, it felt like I stopped breathing.
In the newsroom, we take a deep breath and keep pursuing the truth and telling the story for our readers. That is our calling, even when we are emotionally part of the story.
We are journalists.
Jacqueline Smith is managing editor of The News-Times. Contact her at email@example.com or 203-731-3369.