Amish Murders a Trying Assignment

Oct 9, 2006  •  Post A Comment

The telling of some TV news stories tests the limits of technology. But the telling of the shooting of a dozen Amish schoolgirls in Nickel Mines, Pa., last week tested the hearts and the self-control of seasoned news crews in ways no genocide, war, famine or tsunami assignments could.

“Today” news reader Ann Curry has made a new name for herself through her volunteer reporting from the Darfur genocide, from war zones and from epic natural disasters. But her heart was heavy with reluctance as she headed for Nickel Mines last Monday.

“Nightline” correspondent John Donvan also traveled to the rural community, wishing he didn’t have to.

On the night of the shootings, Mr. Donvan, who had covered the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Colorado, stood roadside to report live to “Nightline,” which devoted its half-hour to the latest in a growing list of school shootings.

Most local reporters were gone by 11 p.m., and the 50 or so members of the press still on the scene “had idly stopped to watch us do our live shot,” Mr. Donvan recalled. He counted down as his taped piece concluded and had just begun to respond to a question by “Nightline” anchor Terry Moran when “I felt like something hit me in the back of the head.”

It was a wave of emotion that lodged in his throat, adding to his story a piercing eloquence that swept over viewers. “Honestly, I didn’t know if I could get through it,” said Mr. Donvan, who prefers to show emotion through his writing, not by a lump in his throat. Near week’s end, he still hadn’t looked at the piece that had such a powerful postscript.

For Ms. Curry, there would be at least three moments when the confluence of tragedy and powerful faith “took the wind right out of me. It was as if somebody had socked me in the stomach.”

Among the correspondents and crews, there was all week an awareness that in covering the story, they risked inflicting discomfort on the already grieving Amish, who shun modern conveniences, gadgets and media.

In recognition of the Amish aversion to being photographed-it is regarded as a vanity-most, but not all, of the images were recorded from the air, from the back or from a distance.

“It presents difficult issues for us and for everybody,” “Nightline” executive producer James Goldston said about “this horrifying clash of cultures. All we can do is treat the community with respect and sensitivity.”

Thus the decision to send in the anchors and the extra-large contingents that tend to trail them was more thought-out than usual.

Tuesday morning, the day after Charles Carl Roberts IV took aim at the schoolgirls before killing himself, Harry Smith of CBS’s “The Early Show” was the only network morning show anchor on the scene, which was covered by correspondents for “Today” and ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

Later that day, ABC’s “World News” anchor Charles Gibson was the only network news anchor on the spot.

“We were certainly out of place there,” “World News” executive producer Jon Banner said. Yet members of the non-Amish community dispensed water to the media lining the country road. A businessman offered Mr. Gibson working space in an auction house across the country road from the one-room schoolhouse, which may be torn down.

“Harry almost demanded to go,” CBS News Morning Broadcasts VP Steve Friedman said.

Outside “Today’s” Studio 1A on Tuesday, the usually boisterous crowd was respectfully hushed. Jim Bell, the executive producer of the NBC morning show, said producers did not have to ask for the silence.

And Ms. Curry’s reputation for heartfelt reporting earned her an invitation (through an outsider) to enter an Amish house and speak off-camera to the family.

“One Amish young man said to me that not one single person in the press was rude to him and for that he was grateful,” said Ms. Curry. “Still, I’m certain our presence caused a degree of pain.”

VIDEO: Nightline’s John Donvan