In the aftermath of Sandy Hook, many journalists struggled with how to approach interviewing the families of children killed in one of the worst school shootings in the nation’s history. One of the most compelling pieces of work thus far comes from Naomi Zeveloff of The Jewish Daily Forward, who profiled Veronique Pozner, the mother of Noah Pozner, who was the shootings’ youngest victim. Zeveloff’s profile garnered national attention for its sensitivity, as well as its wealth of often heart-wrenching detail. She spoke with EWA.
1. You joined The Forward after completing the Columbia Journalism School’s political reporting program in 2011, and you previously worked at some smaller alternative weeklies. How prepared were you for this assignment?
I had been to a shiva (the traditional Jewish observance of mourning at home) of a family whose son had been murdered, so I had felt what it was like to be in that room, although I wasn’t there directly reporting a story. My program at Columbia was more about focusing on a topic area and developing expertise than a traditional J-school coursework. But I had one professor who talked to us a lot about the power of observational journalism. He talked about the need to be a sponge – that was drilled into us. And I think that’s my tendency as a reporter and a person, to be a listener in the world.
For my thesis project on Ramallah, I had to gather images and understand the city in order to be able to write about it. Reporting in a political hot zone, sitting and watching in a place that was uncomfortable to be in, were probably things that helped prepare me for doing this story.
2. What did you learn from the experience?
I worried a lot about including details that might be over the top or upsetting to the family. I wanted to use all of the incredible details Veronique told me, but I wanted to do it appropriately. I deliberately didn’t start the story with the violence, which was probably the toughest thing for people to read. I wanted to first bring readers into the home.
There’s another reporter at The Forward, Paul Berger, who writes a lot about families who have gone through trauma. I called him the night before (the visit with the family), and I was very nervous. He told me ‘they invited you; they want you there.’ He was right. When people invite you into their lives in the darkest moments of their lives, it’s because they have something to tell you. I was so worried about being intrusive that I couldn’t believe or trust it. This experience has taught me to trust my sources when they say they want to talk.
3. What would you have done differently?
There were definitely questions I didn’t ask that I thought to ask later. After I was done with the interviews, the family invited me to stay for the lunch with some of their friends. At that lunch, I met so many incredible people who would have added a lot to the story. The family made it clear I was invited not as a reporter, so I didn’t feel comfortable asking those people if they would be willing to talk to me. I stand by that, but it was difficult.
In writing the story, my interview with Veronique was so long, and she was so thoughtful, philosophical, and even poetic: She made it easy for me. I did do very extensive interviews with other family members, but their voices were not in the story as much. If I had more room or more time, I would have painted a more comprehensive portrait of the family.
4. Have you been surprised by the response to your work?
The response has been astounding. I can’t tell you the number of emails and comments I’ve gotten from people who said they cried while reading it. I’ve never had this experience as a reporter. It’s very gratifying that I was able to communicate Veronique’s story to them.
At the same time, I’ve never had an experience where I’ve been asked to ruminate so much on the reporting process. You go and do these things, and it feels intuitive. But then you’re asked to explain it, and you realize you do have a method.
5. What advice would you have for reporters who face similarly challenging assignments?
I tried hard to be low-key when I went into the home. Before I left, the uncle who had contacted me in the first place about doing the story said “Thank you for coming; you were a calming presence.” That was an incredible compliment, but it also helped me to hear that. In a situation like this, I was so nervous, and the last thing you want to do is allow that nervousness to leak into the conversation and make things uptight.
In a way, I took the pressure off myself by saying “I’m here, and anything they’re willing to tell me will be meaningful to our readers.” That was more effective than the other, more aggressive reporter identity we’re trained to adopt. I tried to be in the moment, and to be a human being.