Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.
Thursday, September 29, 2016

For most of us, our first glimpse into the horrors of the Boston Marathon tragedy came through the lens of Boston Globe photojournalist Steve Silva.

In two minutes and 42 seconds of video, we see and hear what happened as one explosion follows another and the air fills with smoke and then screams and then a cascade of shouts and sirens.

The Boston Globe quickly posted Silva’s video, and to say it went viral feels exactly right, as it not only spread images of the attacks but also infected our hearts. Shock, fear, loss, grief — all of this sweeping over us in the time it took us to comprehend what we were watching. As of 1:15 p.m. EDT on Wednesday, Silva’s video on YouTube had garnered 16,312,601 views. That does not include the millions who have viewed it on TV and on other websites.

Silva is the latest in a long line of heroic men and women who, because they are journalists, run against the traffic of panic and into the black heart of danger. Most of these journalists do so in faraway war zones, but it is a sad fact that we are racking up homegrown tragedies.

The staff at The Denver Post won the Pulitzer Prize this week for its coverage of the Aurora, CO, theater shooting last summer, which left 12 people dead and 58 others wounded. A gunman walked into a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises and started shooting. The youngest victim was 6; the oldest was 51.

“We all wish July 20 never happened, but it did, and I could not be more proud of The Denver Post for its exhaustive and creative coverage,” Post Editor Greg Moore said. “It is a great achievement to have that work honored with a Pulitzer Prize.”

The paper will donate the $10,000 prize money to the Aurora Mental Health Center and the Bonfils Blood Center. The Pulitzer is a fine prize, but it will do little to lighten the heavy hearts of the journalists who bore witness to the aftermath of such violence.

In a March piece for The New Yorker, Rachel Aviv told the story of The Newtown Bee, which covered the shootings at Sandy Hook School, where 20 children and six teachers were killed. Aviv zeroed in on Shannon Hicks, a Bee reporter and photographer whose photo of little children exiting the school with their hands on one another’s shoulders and eyes squeezed shut became instantly iconic.

I called Hicks this week to talk about how she’s doing now and what it’s like for journalists who have to cover such tragedies. It was a short call. She was on deadline, she said, and unavailable all day, and she objected to my quoting from other stories about her.

“There are a lot of inaccuracies out there,” she said, “and I’d rather you not attribute anything to me.”

Her response suggests an understandable weariness. Journalists who cover these tragedies are admired by many of their peers in the industry. However, they are misunderstood and often reviled by a public desperate for answers but appalled by the apparent intrusions required to find them.

This week, Facebook has been full of posts bemoaning the coverage of the Boston bombings. I share their impatience with the punditry, but I admire the reporters on the ground. I bristled when critics lambasted off-camera reporters for shouting questions at a televised Monday news conference in Boston that included Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and Police Commissioner Edward Davis. Post after post declared the reporters “rude,” “insensitive” and “an embarrassment to their profession.”