On what seemed to be a normal school day in Newtown, Conn., on December 14, 2012, children hopped on the bus headed to Sandy Hook Elementary School, put their backpacks on hooks in the classroom and proceeded to learn.
Shortly after, 20-year old Newtown resident, Adam Lanza, broke into the school and opened fire, shattering the lives of 26 students and teachers and their loved ones.
Washington Post reporter Eli Saslow had written narratives of the shootings in Aurora, Colo., and at Virginia Tech University, but his newest assignment, he thought, deviated from his forte. Post editor David Finkel sent him to Newtown to uncover the details of the massacre and turn a story around for the paper two days later.
On his way to Newtown after the shooting, Saslow says he studied the Sandy Hook Elementary attendance policies, diagrams of the school, the lunch menu and read teachers' twitter accounts.
“In order to write about that day,” Saslow said, “I was going to need to write about what that school was like all the time.”
The first day on the job he collected details of the tragedy. The second he devoted to calling up everyone who would talk to him, from Sandy Hook parents to former teachers at the school. Saslow wrote a “reconstruction” piece for The Post.
“After that story I knew I had done the best I could but I didn’t necessarily feel like I got that totally right,” Saslow said. “Not that there were mistakes in the story, it just wasn’t full enough yet.”
Saslow is one of the few narrative journalists on staff at The Post. He transports readers by capturing details, emotions, dialogue – the humanity behind the news.
“I knew I always wanted to have people at the center of my stories,” Saslow said. “Of course facts are important in every story but I think I have an easy time remembering and relating to people and a hard time relating to facts or just statistics, faceless statistics.”
Since then, he has written a number of pieces about funerals for the victims and when students and teachers from Sandy Hook went back to school. But he wanted to focus on one grieving family.
“Reporting, sometimes in the beginning, is like a funnel and there are so many possibilities of what the story could be and who it could be about and when it could happen,” he said. “Your job, in the beginning, is just to make sure that you drill down on the right family at the right time in the right place.”
So he browsed the web for interviews with Sandy Hook parents. Saslow came across a video conversation of a Newtown family, the Bardens, who lost their 7-year old son, Daniel, in the Sandy Hook shooting.
He called up the Bardens to ask for permission to write their story. He explained to the family how he needed to spend an entire week with them, maybe two, tagging along to the mall, gun control protests, congressional debates; anywhere they might go.
Mark and Jackie Barden pondered the idea for weeks and read Saslow’s previous work to get a sense of him. They eventually agreed to let him into their lives. Saslow showed up at their 5-bedroom country house a few weeks later to begin his weeklong journey with the family, which sparked his piece, “Into the Lonely Quiet.”
Saslow says journalists covering tragedies face a challenge in getting to know a family that recently lost a child. The family was “so broken” and their story was “so raw,” he says, making it one of the toughest he has put on paper.
Saslow slept at a hotel nearby, arriving at the Barden’s house each day when they awoke and departing when they got ready for bed. He says the first days left him drained while getting to know the family, putting both sides sometimes in uncomfortable situations.
Saslow felt guilty for his exhaustion; he knew the Barden’s suffering far outweighed his fatigue. The thought helped him push through the toughest times and allowed him to see life through the family’s eyes.
Saslow’s depiction of Daniel is almost visceral: "the teeth that were just beginning to come in, the way his hands moved as they played 'Jingle Bells' that morning on the piano."
“There should be details in every sentence. No sentence of a story should be able to appear in any other story,” Saslow said. “Too many details can sound gratuitous. Find the details, pick the ones that are really resonant and can really evoke this place.”
At times the family needed a break from having a reporter by their side for hours upon end; Saslow used this time to rummage through a room in the house, with the family’s permission, filled with boxes of cards and mementos sent mostly from strangers to the Bardens in memory of Daniel.
Saslow describes the father perusing the mementos: "It sometimes felt to Mark in these moments like his grief was still deepening, like the worst was yet to come. After the gunfire, the funerals, the NRA protests and the congressional debates, they were finally coming into the lonely quiet."
Saslow says he is not the “mass murder expert” at the Post, but he gained valuable experience on the beat covering families of the Aurora, Virginia Tech and most recently, Navy Yard shootings and how to handle the emotions that come with the job.
“In order to write about things in a way that people feel them, you better feel them as a reporter,” Saslow said. “If you are going to write a story that’s going to create empathy in a reader, I think you have to experience those emotions first.”
Still, Saslow says he doesn’t consider himself an advocate for the people he covers, even as he gets up close to them.
“You feel naturally in some ways in debt to them,” Saslow says, “but the truth is, the best way to pay that debt is by writing the most honest, complete, best story that you can—a story that will due justice to what they’re going through.”
Eli Saslow is currently writing about hunger, food insecurity and poverty in the U.S. for The Washington Post. Read more of Saslow's work.
Photo: Eli Saslow speaks to journalism students at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism.