Two school shootings made the news last week, one in western Kentucky and another in Italy, Texas. In both cases, people died, suspects were arrested and the communities were sent into a state of shock. Although they were among the most publicized public shootings, other attacks like a double-homicide in Denver, the shooting deaths of two adults and a toddler in Atlanta and the killing of a Wake Forest student in North Carolina happen on a daily basis in the United States.
These random spasms of violence have become common enough that it isn’t farfetched to believe that most journalists will end up covering something like this at one time or another. These big stories that rock a local community require courage, grace, dignity and strength on the part of news journalists. They also are something you can’t “practice” in your classes so that you can get better at them.
I often tell students that I can tell them how to cover a speech or a meeting and we can practice it for weeks and weeks to make them great at it. That said, crime and disaster news isn’t like this. I can give you all the press releases I have on fires, floods, shootings and more, but that won’t really get you ready for this. I can also set up mock press conferences with police and fire officials, but that doesn’t do it either. Until you’ve been on the scene of an incident where stuff is flying all over the place or people are bleeding or the police are rushing in every direction, you won’t know how you will react.
To help give you a better sense of how journalists end up handling this kind of story, I asked Allison Hantschel,who worked for 10 years in newspapers covering everything from crime to religion, for her recollections on one of her first big, breaking-news stories.
Hantschel was pulled into a story in which gang tensions erupted into a triple homicide, and she was there to help the team at the Elgin Courier-News cover the story as it continued to unfold:
The Elgin Courier-News was my first job out of college. At the time, Elgin was an economically depressed river town that was experiencing a lot of gang violence. The city had been pushing back hard on gang crime for a couple of years by the time I got there, so things were really tense.
One morning by the time I got to the office there had already been one murder and most of the office was out covering that. When the police scanner started going nuts I was the only one left in the office. One of our photogs, who was a breaking news hero, grabbed me basically by the collar and we ran for his car.
The scene was really chaotic. It was outside some small apartment buildings and the cops had barely cordoned off the area when we arrived. The ambulance wasn’t even there yet and the mother of one of the victims was screaming and pulling at the cops trying to get back into the building.
I don’t remember where he parked. I know I moved around a lot, and eventually got herded behind some kind of fence once enough authorities showed up to care about where reporters were.
They weren’t sure where the shooters were, how many, how many victims, etc. One of the perpetrators, turned out later, was still wandering around the scene. Somebody stuffed one of the murder weapons in a stuffed animal and smuggled it out. I suppose if I’d been thinking about it I’d have been nervous for my own safety but I was more concerned about not messing up the story by missing something.
Hantschel’s recollections of being a new reporter and scared of screwing up the story resonate with many journalists who find themselves on the scene of a big story. In most cases, you can’t prepare for this and you also have no way of knowing instinctively if you are “doing it right. That’s why experience matters:
I hadn’t done much cop/crime coverage at this point and I thought there was some kind of magic to it or something, so one night I asked one of our copy editors, Ted Schnell, what I should do if I got sent to cover a crime scene.
His advice is something I STILL tell younger journalists I mentor: “Go to the scene and write down everything you see and hear. Everything. Every sight, every sound, every smell. Put the reader in the moment.” Your job is to be there for the reader who can’t, and it’s all relevant. So I watched and I wrote everything down.
The “what” is seems logical in terms of what to get, but the “how” to get it can often feel difficult or awkward. Hantschel’s advice is to understand that reporting requires you to put the audience’s needs first and then to get the information as best as you can:
It sounds harsh to non-reporters but you’re not a person when you’re working. You don’t get into yelling fights with people but you do ask questions that sound monstrous in some other context. You accept a no if you’re given one but you ask because you might get a yes.
You don’t have to believe everything you hear. You don’t have to put everything you hear in a story. But you do have to ask and you have to listen respectfully. Then go back to your car or the office and figure out what’s useful for your story.
We got grief for humanizing victims that were criminals. But criminals are people, not monsters, and their whole lives are relevant. It’s important to know how someone can seem nice, can seem normal, and be completely different under their skin….
It wasn’t hard to stay safe in that moment because the scene was contained within a building, plus mostly I was too dumb to think about any danger beyond the danger of screwing up the story.
Calm was the easiest part. All your focus has to be external. Be a person later, on your own time. You’re not important in that moment, the story is.
As is often the case, the “kill the messenger” drumbeat took hold of the area in the wake of the reporting. Hantschel said her paper took a lot of grief for contributing to the town’s “image problem.” The newspaper, however, refused to be bullied:
I’ll never forget the response from our editorial page editor. “This town doesn’t have an image problem, it has a corpse problem.” Chris Bailey should have won a Pulitzer for those editorials. They were brave and fierce.
Of all the things she experienced in that moment and everything else she did in journalism, Hantschel said was the sense of connection to the other people in her newsroom that helped her the most.
The newsroom will save you every time. Bounce ideas off other reporters. Ask them to read your stuff before you send it to the desk. Let them make sick inappropriate jokes to talk you down from hard stories. Let them tell you when you need to go home and get some sleep. They’re your friends, yes, but let them be your critics as well.
And dear God, demand to be edited. If your editor skims things and says they’re fine, get another editor to really read you before you publish and question everything. It’ll drive you insane at the time but it’ll save you from corrections or online dragging.
Nobody works anything big alone.