“You’re dealing with people’s lives, legacies and deaths.” Student journalists at the Pitt News reflect on their coverage of the Tree of Life shooting (Part I)


Armed authorities work the scene at the Tree of Life synagogue shooting on Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018. Christian Snyder, a student at the University of Pittsburgh and the editor in chief of the Pitt News, took this photo as part of his coverage of the event. (photo courtesy of Christian Snyder)


The shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue on Oct. 27 left 11 people dead and the community in Pittsburgh in shock. National media descended upon the Pennsylvania city to tell the story of this destructive act, but some of the best coverage came from student journalists at the University of Pittsburgh and their student news operation, the Pitt News.

Several staff members were nice enough to share their thoughts, emotions and advice for the blog, so starting today, we will hear from these students who continue to cover this situation.

Today’s post centers on Pitt News Editor in Chief Christian Snyder (above), a politics and philosophy major who grew up in the Pittsburgh area. Snyder was one of the first students on the scene to report on the shooting. Aside from gathering information, taking photos and writing copy, he also had to make managerial decisions regarding what would and would not be published.

Here are some of the pieces the staff has produced over the past week:

11 Dead, 6 Injured in Massacre at Tree of Life Congregation
Affidavit Reveals Details of Shooting
Obituaries: The Tree of Life Shooting Victims
Pittsburgh Rallies, Unites Against Hate
Suspect in Tree of Life Shooting Pleads Not Guilty

Other staffers will be featured throughout the week. If you have questions or comments, click here.

Christian Snyder didn’t plan to be in Pittsburgh the weekend the Tree of Life synagogue shooting occurred. The Pitt News editor in chief expected to spend time in mourning with family members when news intervened.

“I was supposed to drive to Detroit for a family funeral on Saturday, and was packing my things when I heard about the shooting,” Snyder said in an email interview. “A co-worker forwarded our editorial staff a Pittsburgh Public Safety tweet briefly describing the incident. As soon as I heard, I went to the newsroom, got a camera and a press pass, and drove to Squirrel Hill.”

When Snyder arrived, he showed up to an active crime scene that was continuing to develop.

“When we heard about the shooting, and up until about 15 minutes after I got there, authorities had not yet taken the suspect into custody, and we were hearing reports that the alleged shooter had briefly escaped the synagogue,” he said.

“I’ve covered other crime in the past,” he added. “I’ve written about student deaths and photographed a crime scene last year when a body was left on a residential street in Oakland. But this was really different. Like I mentioned, when I arrived in Squirrel Hill the suspect hadn’t yet been apprehended, so there was definitely some nervous energy in the air.”

When the dust settled at the synagogue, authorities had arrested Robert Bowers, a 46-year-old truck driver in connection with the shooting. A federal grand jury indicted him on 11 charges of murder, along with hate-crime enhancements for his attack on the Tree of Life synagogue. Media reports stated that Bowers entered the building around 10 a.m. that day, with both an AR-15 rifle and three .357 Glock handguns. He later told authorities, “I just want to kill Jews.”

The Pitt News began its coverage with social media, sending tweets out to its readers regarding the event and sharing safety information, Snyder said. After that, the publication began using multiple platforms to create and share information.

“We published a breaking news story as soon as we could, which was a short 200-word brief,” he said. “Throughout the day I sent photos and reporting to our editors working on the keeping the story up-to-date. We got another reporter to the scene in Squirrel Hill and had our digital team start building maps and making videos.”

Even in the chaos of the situation, Snyder said his team continued to make critical editorial decisions about what to publish and what to hold, placing an emphasis on accuracy over immediacy.

“We’re proud we didn’t report victim counts early, because many publications overestimated the number of victims,” he said. “In a synagogue which only had about 60 people in it, the difference between 11 (the correct number) and 15 (one of the higher early estimates I read) is stark.”

Several vigils followed the shootings as well as a visit from the president, which led to various other demonstrations. All of this is happening about 20 minutes from the Pitt News offices, which has the staff working overtime, Snyder said.

“Obviously this has been a stressful time for our staff,” he said. “We’re trying to cover this as if we weren’t students, at all hours of the day and as thoroughly as possible. We’ve been stretched thin.”

“I’d like to say, it truly has been a trying time in Pittsburgh, and I am proud of our work, he added. “It feels rote, emotionless in the aftermath — I know there will come a time soon that I stop and think about the loss of life I was just three blocks away from. But for now, my energy is focused on the stories emerging from my beautiful community.”

At the closing of the email, I asked Snyder if he had any advice for students or student journalists who might find themselves covering something like this. His response was so good, I couldn’t bring myself to chop it up. Here it is in full:

What advice would I have? Damn. I don’t know what possible advice I could give people about something like this.

First of all, hope and (if applicable to you) pray that you don’t have to cover something like this.

Second: be cautious. You would rather miss the big scoop than make a big mistake. You would also rather miss the big scoop than legitimately put yourself in danger — don’t do something stupid for one photo. Be smart, and remember that experienced journalists have years of experience in dangerous situations and know how to handle themselves. On that note of caution — you’re dealing with peoples lives, legacies and deaths. Don’t forget the grief and emotion associated with things like this.

Third: be bold. You would rather get somewhere an hour early or head on a dead-end tip than sit at home and realize there was more you could have done. Your coverage becomes part of American history, and the only way to truly make our mark as journalists is the document we produce every night. Don’t look at your byline and wish you’d done more work.

And finally: be thoughtful. Be thoughtful toward yourself, and contemplate why you’re covering the event. Did you rush to the scene of the shooting so you could have the first scoop? Are you excited, or are you nervous? Make sure you work through your own emotions in a healthy way, and give yourself time to recover. An hour-long break from the newsroom can work wonders for your ability to stay focused and in tune with the material.

Also, be thoughtful toward others — the victims, the survivors, the community and your readers. Your work means a lot to a lot of people.

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