Covering A Mass Shooting Close to Home
As a journalist we cover sad stories all the time. Stories about murders, shootings, crime in general are an everyday part of our jobs. But it is all different when its in your community, is a mass shooting and some of your friends are in the middle of it. When these things come together the story becomes personal and you have to find a way to separate the personal emotions from getting your job done. Recently I was tasked with interviewing someone I know personally who was inside of the bar at the time of the shooting. This presents several issues all of which I will discuss a little later. Let us start with the story.
It was early Tuesday morning around 1:00, July 17 and I was at home preparing for bed. In a bit of a ritual, I did a final check of Facebook and Twitter before turning out the light and I saw tweets from a couple of my coworkers about a shooting in Downtown Tuscaloosa. I immediately grabbed my laptop to investigate further. I got in touch with our crew on the scene to let them know I was there if they needed anything and I took over duties of updating our website. I watched tweets come in for nearly two hours with the latest on what was going on in Temerson Square. I worked from home through the night updating the website and our social media sites. When things calmed down and we found out that no new information would be released until morning I went to bed.
I was scheduled to produce the 10pm News for Tuesday and I fully intended on doing so, but I thought that the station could probably use a hand because our dayside reporter and one of our editors were both involved and we had a reporter on vacation and another covering SEC Media Days. Needless to say, we were stretched. So I texted our Assistant News Director and told her I would be in at 10:30 to help wherever I could. I got to work and was immediately asked to talk with our employees that were involved and ask them for interviews.
Asking for an interview at a difficult time in someone’s life is nothing new to a reporter, we do that sort of thing all the time, but should you be more sensitive and less pushy if its someone you know. Well, those are questions I had to ask myself, especially in one case where one of my friends was still very upset about what happened. I called the person to check in and ask how they were doing and eventually got around to telling the true goal of my phone call. I got a mostly positive response and eventually made arrangements to meet this person at their home, along with a person who was with them at the bar that night. I was less than 5 minutes away when I get a call saying that, emotionally this person just couldn’t do it. Keeping in mind that this is a survivor yet someone I already have a report with, I deeded to push it just a little and asked if I could still come over and talk in person before a decision was made. The person agreed and I continued over to their home. When I arrived the situation was still very much the same. I didn’t push the issue once I arrived but I was offered a roommate who was also present during the shooting, as a person to interview. I still got an incredible interview it just wasn’t what I was originally tasked with doing. As I was leaving I did ask one final time if my friend would be able to talk on camera, but I was again denied, which is totally acceptable knowing the state that the person was in with little sleep and being feet away from someone who was actually injured during the shooting.
The moral of this story is that I pushed a bit further than I would have in a normal situation because I did know the person, but in the end I still respected their wishes and refusal to do an interview. I still got a great story by going ahead to the person’s house, one I would not have gotten without that move. I feel that I acted accordingly to the situation. And I hope that everyone involved felt that I did, as well. I can’t imagine what it is like to experience something like that and then have to talk about it on camera. I have seen many people break down during interviews and people refuse interviews, each person handles tragedy differently. Everyone is built different emotionally and as a reporter we have to remember that and treat everyone the way we would want to be treated if the situation were reversed. We can’t act like a flock of vultures ready to tear someone apart, we have to remember to be sensitive to the situation and all of those involved.