I remember one of the first stories I was assigned as a reporting intern in Lorain, Ohio was the death of a 9-year-old boy. All I remember is that he had a brain tumor, and that he loved baseball but couldn’t play because of his illness — and yet still attended every game of his Little League team. As I interviewed his father for the obituary, he started crying, and I started crying. It was one of the toughest stories I’ve ever written.
I spent most of the afternoon of last December 14 pretty numb. The shooting deaths of 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School affected me more than any news event since — and possibly including, September 11. My wife is a teacher, and our 3-year-old is in preschool. It hit me like a sucker punch.
Toward the end of the day, I spoke with colleagues about the unfathomable horror of what happened in Connecticut. I thought about that obituary I wrote 20 years ago, and I couldn’t imagine having to make those phone calls and knock on those doors. I knew it was important reporting that had to be done. But the writing — what would you say about their accomplishments? Their ambitions? Their survivors?
I wrote the tweet on my iPhone on my way out the door.
How do you write an obituary for a 5-year-old? Then how do you write 19 more?
— Gregory Korte (@gregorykorte) December 14, 2012
It was, it turned out later, inaccurate. All of the children killed were aged 6 and 7.
I’m not entirely sure when the tweet reached critical mass. I know Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times was one of the first to retweet it. Dave Weigel of Slate followed. Henry Winkler, Rosie O’Donnell, Jason Biggs, and a host of minor celebrities helped to amplify it. It kept going for days and even weeks, reaching more than 8,500 “official” retweets (not including “RT” retweets, many of which were themselves retweeted) and more than 800 favorites. I gained almost 600 new followers.
Some people — but they were a minority — immediately put a political frame on the tweet. There were mentions of the National Rifle Association, Palestine and drone attacks. One woman has retweeted it every day since the massacre, copying the NRA and House Democrats and Republicans:
— Doris A. Frey (@NatureWoman63) January 6, 2013
Many of the responses were heartfelt and appreciative. This one was typical:
— Darryl Highsmith (@cruisindarryl) December 15, 2012
I only found one that was negative. That’s the Internet, I guess.
“@gregorykorte: How do you write an obituary for a 5-year-old? Then how do you write 19 more?” This is disgustingly morbid. Go to hell.
— AK (@a_haywood) December 15, 2012
An Atlanta television reporter (I don’t know her) called it the most powerful tweet of the year.
— jaye watson (@jayewatson) January 3, 2013
What have I learned about social media through this? Brevity is the soul of all writing. A tweet can be as powerful as an essay. Some subjects need no hashtags. You can’t make a tweet go viral. And emotion trumps reason.
As a reporter, you can’t pretend that events like Sandy Hook — or even the isolated death of a 9-year-old with a brain tumor — don’t affect you.