The experience of a small town besieged by media attention is always a struggle, both for residents and those covering them. That challenge seems elevated, however, in the case of the Amish school shooting in Nickel Mines, Pa., since the Amish culture is one that prefers not to call attention to itself. The Amish are also quite averse to being photographed, which poses an obvious challenge for television reporters in particular. Correspondent Tracy Smith has been reporting on this story for "The Early Show" and below, she discusses how she has gone about approaching members of the Nickel Mines community with those considerations in mind.
(AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
I knew driving down here that this was going to be a tough story to cover on a number of levels. It's always difficult, both personally and professionally, to do stories about the deaths of children, especially an incident like this, so violent and so senseless. And this happened in the Amish community, where, in general, people don't want to be photographed, let alone talk on camera. The reason, as I understand it, is that they don't want to glorify the individual, that modesty before God is one of the key aspects of the Amish faith and life. So on my drive down here, I spoke with a print reporter who covers the Amish community regularly to get some guidelines. She said if we kept a respectful distance and asked before shoving a camera in someone's face (something I'd like to think I do in most situations), we should be OK. I also read some research I'd pulled on the Amish, which explained why they don't use electricity, watch TV, drive cars.
Residents here have been patient and kind in explaining this community to me, and though I still have a lot to learn about them, I have profound respect for what they believe and how they live their lives.
I've tried to let community members approach me, instead of approaching them, by making eye contact, smiling, just being unobtrusive and polite. That's how I met the Amish woman who agreed to be interviewed in silhouette the other day. [You can watch that segment here.] I was standing near the home where Marie Roberts, the shooter's wife, is staying, and an Amish woman walked by me, touched my hand, and said, "I feel so sorry for them," pointing in the Roberts' family's direction. We started talking, and I learned that she lived nearby, and was friendly with the families of the victims as well as the family of the shooter. She told me about the importance of forgiveness and about how the Amish community is embracing the shooter's family. At some point I asked if she would speak with me on camera, to share some of her insight. I didn't push, just said we'd be happy to not show her face, so as not to single her out or glorify her in any way. Why she agreed I'm still not entirely sure. I think she is a woman of faith who wants people to understand her community's deep relationship with God, perhaps in the hope that people around the world will follow their amazing example of forgiveness. But that's just a guess.
Other people I haven't even bothered to ask to go on camera. Yesterday, a teenager who I met in a store explained the funeral process to me, how each member of the church is invited -- they "have word" as they call it — to the funeral, how women wear black and men wear white shirts and black jackets. He turned out to be a cousin of one of the girls who will be buried today. Somewhere in our chat he said, "I've seen you on TV." It was a reminder that generalizations are just that, generalizations, and that you have to actually talk to people to find out what's true.