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Managing Media Key After Newtown Massacre

Almost immediately following the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. the morning of Dec. 14 that killed 20 students and six adults, media from around the world converged on the site, leaving authorities with a logistical dilemma.

The spokesman for the investigation, Connecticut State Police Lt. J. Paul Vance, told that during his close to 12 years in the position, this was one of the largest gatherings of media he has ever seen.

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"The influx of media was beyond anyone's comprehension. We literally experienced response from not only media in New England, but media from all over the world."

He said the media began to arrive at the school almost instantly after the shootings took place as police were still actively managing the scene.

"We needed to corral them. We needed to get them out of the way, out of the area where they could not be and did not belong. But certainly understanding that they had a job to do and we had a job to do, and the two did have to meet. We had to make every effort to accommodate their needs and make them understand what our needs were."

Setting Up the Staging Area

A large park about three-quarters of a mile away from the school served as the staging area.

Vance said that the location was close enough to the school for the media to do their jobs, but far enough away that it would not interfere with law enforcement and the ongoing investigation.

An email was immediately sent out to the agency's media contact list and information was posted on its website with the time and location of the first briefing along with directions.

"In order to set the media staging area up -- it sounds relatively simplistic -- but it's not something you can go out on the corner with a bullhorn and give them directions to where this is going to happen," he said. "It is important that you have a network set up at least within your community and within your state."

When the news of the incident first broke, Vance said that there were so many news helicopters flying above the school that they were lucky they didn't have to deal with an aircraft accident as well.

"They could see from the air, many things that were going on," he said. "The initial response by troopers and by Newtown officers was that we needed to get into the school and rescue as many people as possible, stop the aggression and ensure the area was safe.

"That meant taking anyone who was not recognized as being allowed in that area and identifying them. If that meant handcuffing them and detaining them until we did that, that's what happened. Many times it was misinterpreted."

Dispelling Rumors

When the regular press briefings began, Vance was able to address such rumors and make sure that all information given to the media was accurate.

"We were able to hold them frequently enough to curtail and correct the rumors that were inaccurate and incorrect," he said. "That was very important in order to keep the flow of information and the level of accuracy very concise."

Vance has served as the only spokesman for the investigation, something that he said has been key in making sure the right information gets out there.

"People knew that if they wanted the information, it was coming from one source, and that one source was myself," he said. "They knew that if any other information was coming from other sources or unnamed sources, that it could not be construed as being accurate because whenever we gave out information it would have my name attached to it and that would authenticate it as being true and accurate."

While dealing with the media can be a challenging task, Vance said that tragic nature of the situation was not lost on those who covered it.

"The respect of the media toward the victims and the victims' families in this particular instance was exemplary. When I asked publicly that they not bother the families and give the families time to grieve, they respected that request . . . I can't say enough positive things about how the media reacted during this horrific, tragic situation."

Informing the Victims' Families

Vance stressed that while it was important to maintain control over the information given to the media, the number one priority was to inform the victims' families of what was occurring as they arrived on scene.

Within two hours of the shooting, efforts were made to assign a Connecticut State trooper to each of the 26 families.

"The intent here was several things. First, they needed to be informed first of anything involving this case as it moved forward. Secondarily, their trooper could obtain the answer to any question they might have relative to anything to do with this case."

He said that the troopers served as the "umbilical cord" from the victims' families to the investigation.

"We did not want them to see or hear anything in the media or from any other source after the public had been informed," he said. "We wanted them to be on the front line and know exactly what was happening and what was going on during the entire investigation operation."

Vance said that it was a very efficient operation and was a "heartbreaking" experience for the troopers assigned to that duty.

It was also imperative that the residents of Newtown were kept informed of the investigation.

"Initially the people in the community wanted to know that they were safe; that we were not looking for people who may have been responsible for this tragic event," he said. "We needed to then make sure that the people were fully informed as much as we could."