“It was so overwhelming.” Student journalists at the Pitt News reflect the Tree of Life shooting (Part II)

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(Participants gather at a vigil in Pittsburgh for the Tree of Life synagogue shooting victims the Saturday of the attack. Pitt News Visual Editor Anna Bongardino photographed this event and several others that happened after the shooting. Photo courtesy of Anna Bongardino.)

The shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue last week left 11 people dead and the community in Pittsburgh shattered. 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.

AnnaMugToday’s post centers on Pitt News Visual Editor Anna Bongardino (left), a senior political science major, who helped the paper cover the events in the wake of the attack, including President Trump’s visit. She outlines the impact the vigil and the national attention had on her and why this kind of coverage matters so much to the paper’s readers.


Part I can be found here. If you have questions or comments, click here.

UPDATE: Anna reached out after the post ran and wanted to add something important to her thoughts.

One important note I have is to say that my central takeaway from covering the events was not that they were overwhelming. The shooting itself was overwhelming — the coverage of it wasn’t. Covering the vigils and protests in the aftermath of a hate crime was uncharted territory for all of us. There was a learning curve involved in producing such a large amount of sensitive content on such short deadlines for the editorial board, the writers and the photographers. But this is my main message: when student journalists have the privilege to report national stories, they should embrace it and take the assignments that are challenging and unfamiliar to them. It’s not easy to report on stories of violence in your own community especially alongside national journalists. There is a balance you need to strike within yourself as a journalist and as a community member who has been affected by those events, but it’s rewarding to know you’re contributing to something so meaningful.

That’s what I would like people to take away from my experience.

The remainder of the original post is below with some minor edits. — VFF


Anna Bongardino was headed to the Pitt News office to give one of her staffers a camera when she found out about the attack at the Tree of Life synagogue.  Having worked in the area for much of her time at the University of Pittsburgh, Bongardino said she knew the area well.

“The synagogue is a 10-minute drive from campus,” she said. “It was a neighborhood I was just in that night before.”

With her editor in chief, Christian Snyder, heading to the scene of the shooting, Bongardino said she didn’t know exactly what had happened but it became readily apparent that the situation was going to be a serious news story.

“I originally thought it was a drive-by shooting or something,” Bongardino said. “I didn’t realize it was a really involved thing right away. It was just all of a sudden Christian is in the office and he was running out to the scene. Now, I was like, ‘Something is going on and it’s not good.'”

As information about the attack filtered in, Bongardino said she decided to cover the events that sprung up over the next several days, including a vigil held the night of the shooting and President Donald Trump’s arrival later the next week.

“I decided that if there were protests or anything else, I would go,” she said. “I was trying to do homework but I couldn’t focus. (The shooting) was so overwhelming. It’s not the city I thought Pittsburgh to be.”

Although she had photographed many events throughout her time in college, Bongardino said the vigil felt different to her in terms of what she felt comfortable in photographing.

“What was difficult was that it was a very fresh thing and people were very emotional,” Bongardino said. “I felt like my camera, instead of being a buffer, it made me feel like I stood out more and that I was being voyeuristic so I was trying to be respectful of these people who were experiencing very real pain.”

“In terms of having an internal discussion with myself (about which photos to use)… I think it was more just during the event,” she added. “‘Is this too emotional to publish?’ ‘Should I take this photo?’ I think that would be a great photo, but it was something I didn’t want to do. People would look at me and I would feel uncomfortable. People have looked at me before, but it felt kind of different this time. The look then said, ‘Why do you really need to take my photo?’ Now it was, ‘Do you really need to take a photo now?’ I feel like I can’t and I feel like I shouldn’t intrude so I think that’s something that as I get more comfortable with… events like this, I think I’ll be able to find a balance.”

Bongardino said it also felt different because of the massive amount of national attention this event received, drawing people to her city.

“It’s a small big city,” she said. “I’m familiar with the professional photographers around here, so I knew all these people and everywhere I went… Then, I’m speaking with someone next to me and it’s a senior White House correspondent. It was way different than dealing with the local media.”

“It’s sombering to realize all that is because of a hate crime,” she added. “That’s a really difficult thing to contend with.”

In terms of the overall experience, Bongardino said she was glad she took part in the media coverage.

“I definitely think for myself, it was kind of healing to cover the vigil and it felt really productive,” she said. “It felt like I was contributing. If you have any doubts going to an emotionally charged or difficult events, go. When you go, do the best you can and allow yourself to feel things. Don’t try to separate your humanity from journalism.

“Still, try to be journalistic and keep your journalistic integrity and don’t exhibit bias but don’t forget you’re a human too. If I could go back and do that vigil again, I would have taken more photos. Don’t be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone and… see what you can do to help the people. Do what’s scary to you. It’s a really important job to let people know what’s going on.”

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