Reporting Tragedy: Columbine to Aurora
Journal-isms: Coverage of the movie-theater killings might have a greater impact in the digital age.
The mass shooting at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater that killed 12 people and wounded dozens early Friday presents the kind of story that tests news organizations, particularly in an era of cutbacks. The Denver Post, the dominant newspaper in the region, was no exception.
The Post's coverage was influenced by the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, outside Denver. Two teenagers shot to death 12 fellow students and a teacher, then killed themselves.
Denver Post Editor Gregory L. Moore agreed Sunday to answer questions sent by Journal-isms readers.
"Columbine informs everything we do," Moore said by email. "We learned so much about covering tragedy from Columbine." He also said, "The web has allowed so many more people to experience our journalism, so our impact certainly is much greater than in 1999."
Moreover, "We are doing whatever we feel we need to do to cover this story right," he said, noting, "We had people on the scene within an hour of the shooting, maybe sooner . . . We had some people on the scene for 17 hours."
Here are the questions and answers:
Q. How do you feel about the large volume of copy, and most important, accuracy without a copy desk -- or the reduced number of editors? (In May, the Denver Post announced that it was eliminating its copy desk. Instead of dedicated copy editors, reporters and assignment editors would be responsible for copy editing duties, which will be spread throughout the newsroom, according to the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas.)
Moore: I believe we have been up to the challenge of handling this huge story. We have had some issues responding to the normal crises of grammatical copy and typos but nothing super embarrassing. I have never seen us more meticulous, something we have to be with the staff losses we have incurred. People have incredible capacity to rise to the challenge and we are. Everyone is using every skill they have to make our newspapers and our website the best they can be. And they are succeeding.
Please compare the difference in resources available to the paper when the Columbine shootings occurred and now, with these shootings, and describe how the coverage is different as a result. What was the size of the newsroom during Columbine and what is the size now, specifically?
Moore: I was not here for Columbine, but the other day we were looking at those Columbine papers and marveling at the talent that is no longer here. My guess is the staff was around 240 or so in 1999. Today we have about 170. In terms of how the coverage is different, I just think we know more now about covering these kind of tragedies, the sensitivities involved, the bases that need to be touched. We did an incredible job back then and if I may say so, we are doing an incredible job now. The one thing that hasn't changed is we are doing whatever we feel we need to do to cover this story right. We have added pages, we are busting our OT budget and we are using every single person here to contribute to our coverage in print and online. And we have so many more resources with social media and the speed of the web. The web has allowed so many more people to experience our journalism, so our impact certainly is much greater than in 1999.
How much was the Columbine incident on your mind when planning Aurora coverage? What, if anything, did you do differently based on Columbine feedback? One thing I wanted to know was if there were any Littleton people there.
Moore: Columbine is always on our mind. We learned so much about covering tragedy from Columbine. We learned a lot about being sensitive to those affected by the tragedy and to be skeptical. We also learned to give space to those who have lost loved ones. So Columbine informs everything we do. A big thing is that people here get really concerned about the perpetrator getting any recognition for the heinous act. That is a very sensitive thing for us. We are a newspaper and a conveyor of fact, but we are sensitive to that and how we handle it. When we recount the Columbine anniversary, for instance, we never publish the mugs of the killers next to the victims of that tragedy. It is third rail for us. Yes, there were people from Littleton there, but we are also sensitive about not making everyone from Littleton the poster girl or boy for that previous tragedy.
Did you ask reporters to look for that angle as well?
Moore: We don't have to tell them to do that. It is second nature for us.
Media often swoop in when a big story breaks and do the obligatory coverage -- the "wham, bam, thank you ma'am" coverage. How do we let the public know we're not just after the big headline?
Moore: I don't think that characterization is true for local media. You might argue that national media parachute in, but we don't. We are part of the community and here for the long haul. In truth, we have been covering Columbine since the day it happened. And we will be covering this tragedy forever. People here will be affected by this tragedy for as long as they live and for as long as we are here we will cover it. It is now a part of us.
How do we tell the story of the long-term impact on the lives of those affected by such crisis?
Moore: We have to stay on it. In tragedies such as these, there is understandably a lot of focus on the loss of life. But the injuries sustained here are war-like. People will be living with unspeakable injuries and making remarkable comebacks and we will cover them for as long as it takes. We will report about how society takes care of these broken bodies and injured souls and we will chronicle their triumphs. We realize the recovery is a huge story in the months and years to come. That recovery is not just physical. It is psychic as well. We have demonstrated that we can stay with a story for a decade in the case of Columbine. This will be no different.
How do you balance the "need for speed" (an Internet-driven reality) with the need to get it right -- the traditional journalistic "must"?
Moore: We don't try to balance those things. The need to be right in a crisis like this is paramount. We don't publish until we know what we are talking about. That has proven a smart strategy on fairly routine stories and it is even more important on a big story like this. People forgive mistakes made by some faraway media outlet. But when we make a mistake it is "Dewey Beats Truman." It is just not worth the gamble to rush. And we are fortunate to have a culture where people question whether we are taking leaps with particular facts and eventually, most times, it gets to me.
As many newsrooms downsize, have fewer people working at night and focus more on the Web, can you recount how your staff first learned about the shootings?
Moore: Yes. Our night web producer was about to leave for the night around 1 and checked our Twitter feeds from cops and there is [an] app where you can get police radio traffic. And he heard all the commotion around the shooting at the theater and the call for emergency vehicles. He alerted the night news editor who was probably just crawling into bed and that person called our News Director, who oversees all print and web journalists, and he was in the office by 2 after directing resources from home. We had people on the scene within an hour of the shooting, maybe sooner, and got great stuff from those folks on the scene. And there were plenty of witnesses milling around. That web producer was doing his job up until the very last second of his shift and it made a huge difference in our response. Yes our staff is smaller, but when people are doing their jobs until the very last second, things tend to go right.
What did your on-duty folks do first?
Moore: They called in reporters and got them to the scene and as soon as we could confirm information we sent out alerts and updated the web. Then we just started using every tool at our disposal. We started assembling photo galleries for the web and sending out information on social media. We reported like a wire service all early morning.
How quickly did you began preparing for print editions?
Moore: The web was our first priority and our print coverage was derived from our day-long reporting and photography. We had some people on the scene for 17 hours. We waste nothing. We take what we have reported on the web and social media, develop it and improve upon it for print.
Was every focus for the first 12 hours about the Web coverage?
Moore: Yes, everything is first about the web for us all day. We probably had 10 million page views that first day. Possibly a bit more. The way we see it, the tools at our disposal allow us to be a wire service, a radio station, a television station and a newspaper and we take full advantage of all of them.
Charles M. Blow, New York Times: Mourning and Mulling
Ta-Nehisi Coates, the Atlantic: The Dream for Maximum Guns
Jenny Deam, Los Angeles Times: Moviegoer comes face-to-face with gunman in Colorado theater
Keli Goff, Loop21: The Aurora Tragedy, Race and Gun Control
Mathew Ingram, gigaom.com: The Colorado shooting and the crowdsourced future of news
Eugene Kane, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel: As in Colorado, Milwaukee families grieve senseless deaths
Mary Mitchell, Chicago Sun-Times: Mass murder shows [it's] time to get serious about gun control
Helen Lewis, New Statesman (Britain): How the media shouldn't cover a mass murder
Tony Norman, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: Limbaugh can't get 'Dark Knight' right
Joanne Ostrow, Denver Post: Social and mainstream media cover Aurora shooting from all sides
Darryl E. Owens, Orlando Sentinel: Colorado movie massacre part of the gun-culture script
Clarence Page, Chicago Tribune: Gun lobby fires up Obama fear
Alex Pappas, Daily Caller: Colorado tea partier describes 'surreal' day of wrongly being linked to theater massacre
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press: A legal guide for reporters covering the Colorado shooting
Rochelle Riley, Detroit Free Press: Why do we allow weapons of war among us?
Jakob Schiller, Wired: When Tragedy Hits, Photojournalists Balance Reporting and Emotion
Al Tompkins, Poynter Institute: What journalists need to know about guns and gun control
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Journal-isms is published on the site of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education (www.mije.org). Reprinted on The Root by permission.