What It’s Like To Report on Mass Shootings Routinely
“Somehow this has become routine. The reporting is routine. My response here at this podium ends up routine…We have become numb to this.” -President Obama
Updated June 12, 2016: The nation’s deadliest mass shooting unfolded overnight in Orlando. I remain hopeless.
Updated December 2, 2015: Since I first wrote this story in October, I’ve covered about a half dozen shootings, most recently today, when 14 people were murdered in San Bernardino, California. This is emotionally exhausting work and if you’re doing the same, I suggest you look into self-care for journalists.
Original: On Thursday, my news desk and I spent seven hours reporting on a mass shooting that left 10 dead and 7 injured at the Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. I wrote our liveblog, three reporters gathered information, one reporter was sent to the scene and one editor bounced between our collective five stories. Everything went smoothly and we fell naturally into our roles, just like we always do.
My news desk and I are good at covering shootings because we get a lot of practice. This is the fifth mass shooting we’ve covered since Dylann Roof murdered nine parishioners in the name of racism at a Charleston Bible study.
As President Obama said after the shooting, the reporting is routine. It’s so routine that we have an entire assembly line in place, complete with prewritten and predictable stories. I’m here to tell you exactly how routine this process is.
Before the shooting
I have a mass shooting story prewritten at all times, ready to be filled in with details as needed. Such shootings happen about once a month and we need to be prepared. This is my prewritten mass shooting story:
A mass shooting has been reported at TK, where TK people are believed to be dead and TK more are injured, according to TK police department. The gunman has/hasn’t been apprehended. None of those involved have been identified.
This is a developing story and will be updated as more information becomes available.
I understand this probably seems grim, to be always ready to write about death but its necessary. I have folders organizing mass shootings by type. I just added livestreamed this summer but theater, school, workplace and military base have long had a place in my files. Mass death is prewritten in America.
Mass shooting news always breaks on Twitter, usually through a breaking news aggregation account. Once it breaks, the news team assembles: I usually write the liveblog and between three to five reporters start placing rapid fire phone calls: police, fire, hospitals, attorney general, mayor, governor, school district, neighbors, FBI, ATF. If you’ve got information, we’ve called you within 10 minutes of the break. I save all these contacts, just in case of a copy cat killing.
Though victims names are often not released for hours after the incident, this is another story we’re perpetually ready to write. One of the reporters on my desk is so good at writing about mass shooting victims, she could write an eloquent, respectful piece in her sleep. A “Who were the victims?” story is a key cog in the mass shooting reporting machine.
This is trickier. We know we have to write about the shooter, but we don’t want to glorify him (and it usually is a him) endlessly. I have a trusty prewrite for shooters that balances focus on motive and personal background: We don’t want to reprint a manifesto, but we’ve got to mention he has one and we don’t want to harp on a break-up, but we have to mention if all his victims look like his ex. The rest is easy to fill in: what kind of weapon he used, how many rounds he shot, if he escaped or shot himself.
There’s always a vigil and there’s always a vigil story: sad loved ones, standing around holding candles and photographs of the dearly departed. Someone says, “Never again.” Some relative vows to lobby for gun control. We blog.
The Presidential Address
Obama was right when he said his time at the podium is routine. His speech is predictable. We know about when he’ll go on, what he’ll wear, and have a rough idea of what he’ll say. Thoughts and prayers, thoughts and prayers and change. We publish the story about Obama’s speech before he even gets to the stage, that’s how routine it is.
Tonight’s address, however, was a bit different than the routine. Obama was angry.
And then I was angry. After seven hours of filling in morbid madlibs about the deaths of ten people at the hands of man wielding four guns, I realized what I was actually writing about.
The routine nature of gun violence is quashing our ability to feel. It means nothing, or almost nothing, to those outside the immediate bubble of the victims. The sheer volume makes these cases difficult to keep track of. The names of countless victims bleed into one another. The shooters only grab our attention if they do something new, like open fire at an elementary school or post a first person video.
For the next few days, we’ll see many calls for change. The temporary push for gun control in the wake of a shooting is part of the routine too.