The last word, and why it matters

January 25, 2013 09:00

By Forrest Carr, News Director, KGUN9-TV Tucson, Arizona

Right after the New Year we learned that volunteers from Tucson's Ben's Bells organization were planning a trip to Newtown, Connecticut to coincide with the second anniversary of January 8, 2011 shootings in Tucson, which killed six people and wounded 12, including then-Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

The purpose of the trip was simple:  to reach out to that community, which is now going through what Tucson went through two years ago, with acts of kindness.

When I learned of the trip, for about two seconds I considered the possibly of going along to cover it -- and then rejected the idea out of hand.  Why?  The Newtown community had let it be known that it was sick of the media, which had not always behaved well during coverage of the horrific events at Sandy Hook Elementary.  I did not want KGUN9 to contribute to that intrusiveness or add to the community's burden, or to be perceived as doing so.

Their mission of Ben's Bells is to spread kindness and to encourage others to do the same. The primary way they do this is by hanging bells with messages of kindness attached.  They ask absolutely nothing in return.

Producer John Glenn, anchor Jennifer Waddell and the rest of the management team were all in agreement that we could not go unless we were sure the Ben's Bells volunteers would be welcome in Newtown, and that we would be welcome, too.  We learned that the volunteers had received an invitation from Newtown to go and were comfortable with us coming along, provided that we conducted ourselves respectfully.

We went.

In the aftermath, we all agreed that as journalists, we have never seen a story quite like this one.

As news director, I had to be concerned about the potential for backlash -- both from Newtown, and from members of our own Tucson public.  In the aftermath, I asked John whether he had shared those same concerns.  Yes, he had.  What overcame them?  "You see so much dark and negative stuff in the news, and even in our entertainment.  And here is an actual positive thing that people are doing, that our neighbors are doing, people we know."  John said what convinced him is that he simply had faith that telling this story was the right thing to do.

The proof, of course, would be in the reception that the volunteers -- and us along with them -- got on scene.  Jennifer admits that she was nervous about that, "Knowing that the people of Newtown really had just had enough with the media.... They'd been invaded, and had to deal with members of the media who were not always respectful of their privacy.   We had heard stories of the media being kicked out of places, and neighbors yelling at members of the media. And rightfully so."

The Ben's Bells folks set up shop in a local bed and breakfast.  Word spread quickly via social media and the local press about why they were there.  The Murzin family, which lives in the area, wanted to be a part of it, and showed up on the morning of the 8th to help.

I asked Jennifer how she got to know the Murzins.  "One of the things I tried to do while we were there was, instead of approaching people to ask them to do an interview, I just talked to people. And just had conversations."  She noted that in our deadline-driven business, "It's so rare that we ever take the time to just stop and talk to someone, just to get to know them."

Ben's Bells executive director Jeannette Maré tells KGUN9 that about 100 people from the Newtown area showed up to help distribute the bells.  She said the feedback from the community has been astonishing.  "Tons, pages and pages and pages of positive feedback," she said.  "It's been an overwhelmingly beautiful response -- way, way more than we could have ever imagined."

In practical terms, perhaps, the gesture from the Ben's Bells volunteers was no big deal, consisting of no more than the simple act of hanging a few small, inexpensive bells strung with some trinkets and a message. But looked at another way, it's a really big deal, perhaps the biggest deal in all the whole, wide world.

Reflecting on the trip and the coverage, Glenn said, "I think Tucsonans just need to know that despite all the bad  people out there, who are acting on whatever greed, their need for whatever this or whatever that, whatever drives them -- there are very, very good people living right next door to you, who are so selfless that they will dedicate their time, their efforts and their energies into just making someone else feel better when they really need it."

Jennifer summed it up this way.  "This was a chance for our viewers, and for those volunteers, and for those people in Newtown, and even for us in the media to see the best in people.  And that's what we need. That's what all of us need.  To feel like there's still good in the world.  And honestly, there's a lot more of that in the world than there is bad, but it just gets overlooked.  We tend to forget that." For Jennifer, the assignment had one unexpected effect on her.  "That trip for me was probably the most rewarding thing I've ever done as a journalist."

To understand why, you must understand this:  The quiet tinkling of every Ben's Bell loudly proclaims that the cruel, evil, and violent who walk among us do not speak for humanity, and they do not get to have the last word. The front side of the Ben's Bell tag reads:  "You have found a  Ben's Bell.  Take it home, hang it and remember to spread kindness throughout our world.  'Remember there's no such thing as a small act of kindness.  Every act creates a ripple with no logical end.' - Scott Adams"

The back side of the tag distributed in Newtown read:  "Ben's Bells Project:  This Bell symbolizes our connection as a community and the power we each have to change the world by committing to kindness, one interaction at a time.  We surround all of those who were affected by the events of Dec. 14, 2012 with love and kindness."

Read the complete story on KGUN-TV's website.