Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

When reporting on mass shootings is no longer enough

By John Temple

No. Not again. Mass shooting headlines

That’s how I felt on Saturday when I heard the terrible news from El Paso and then again on Sunday morning when Dayton added a second blow. I imagine I wasn’t alone. Each time the shocking news of another mass shooting arrives, I find myself wanting to turn away.

I was the editor of the Rocky Mountain News in Denver when the Columbine High School shootings gripped the nation in 1999. The Columbine attack was covered live on cable and broadcast television. At the time we thought it would be the mass shooting to end all mass shootings. How could we let anything so horrible happen again? Especially after seeing what we had all seen.

I wish I could believe what Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said just a few years ago about Americans as a people. “Some terrible things have happened in the United States, but one can only hope that we learn from those bad things.” Clearly, that hasn’t happened when it comes to the insanity of gun violence.

The Rocky put out two extra editions that day in 1999. The only thing holding us back from getting on the streets quickly was that the pictures we were getting from our photographers on the scene were so bloody, we didn’t feel we could put them on the front page. We were shooting mostly film in those days. We didn’t have smartphones. We had a motorcyclist to pick up film and speed it back to our newsroom.

Instead of hoarding our photos for our print edition, as was then the norm, we decided to share everything as soon as we had it. The next day front pages around the world carried pictures from Rocky photographers. The staff’s pictures would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for news photography, and its reporting would win other national awards. That was a small point of pride in an otherwise very dark time. It’s different covering a tragedy in your own community. I didn’t realize then how much the story would dominate our lives or for how long.

At that time, I believed Ginsburg’s words. I believed that if journalists did our job well, if we provided independent, fact-based reporting, citizens would make informed choices and make our country better, as night would follow day. That’s the way things are supposed to work.

We committed ourselves to asking the questions the shooting raised. How could it have happened? Why? Could the school or police have done anything differently?  Did nobody know about the plan? What was going on in our community that something so evil could occur?

We kept at it even as we heard from many readers asking us to stop. Hostility against the press got so bad that we had people throwing snowballs with rocks in them at our photographers. Many people just wanted to be left alone.

Seeing what we had seen, what the attack had done to the families of the dead, to the wounded and the survivors, and to the community itself, we couldn’t imagine then that the nation would allow so many more shootings to follow. Yet, despite our dedication to the work, despite the countless investigations, projects, and special reports, it feels like nothing has changed. Columbine, if anything, opened a door that we can’t close. Copycats saw what happened and learned their own lessons.

A list of mass shootings that could fill this entire article followed. In Colorado alone, there was the Platte Canyon High School shooting in 2006, church shootings in Arvada and Colorado Springs in 2007, and the Aurora movie-theater shooting in 2012. And the list goes on, right up to this year, at a school in a Denver suburb.

I’m out of daily journalism now. But whenever there’s a mass shooting I have no desire to read the stories or watch the footage. There’s a ritual to the coverage, and it feels like it always follows the same arc and ends the same way. Journalists tell the story of what it was like to survive the slaughter. Then they offer tender accounts of the victims’ lives, detail where and how the weapons were purchased, publish profiles of the killer or killers, and write accounts of the struggles of the wounded. And then most of us move on, until the next shooting. Even the killing of 20 elementary-school children in Newtown, Connecticut, changed nothing.

This ritual can make journalism seem futile. I am forced to ask why journalists are doing this work in this way, and whether in the end it’s worth it.

Journalists feel the need to bear witness. But to the same horror, again and again? I can’t say anymore that I believe we learn from terrible things. I can say that I’ve seen the limits of journalism—and of hope. And I’m struggling with what to do about it.

Cross-posted from The Atlantic