Posts Tagged ‘Colorado’


SPJ president: After Aurora theater shootings, visions of covering tragedy at Columbine

Following is an essay that first ran on northjersey.com on July 20:

Oh no. Not again.

It’s hard for me to describe the heart-sinking, knot-in-the-stomach feeling I had upon hearing the news about the mass killings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado.

Like anyone, I am saddened by this senseless tragedy. But the killing of 12 moviegoers and wounding of dozens more triggered an immediate response in the back of my brain.

Columbine.

I was a reporter for the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News on April 20, 1999 when two teenagers went on a killing rampage, killing 12 fellow students and a teacher before taking their own lives.

That day was the start of my spring vacation. As was my habit, I tried to disconnect from the news on my time off. It was a bright, beautiful day and I had a ticket to go see the Colorado Rockies play a baseball game at Coors Field.

That game never happened. I vividly remember stepping out of the shuttle bus in downtown Denver on my way to the ball park when I saw a strange sight, people hawking my newspaper.

The Rocky had put out a rare extra edition with news of the massacre and headlines set in the kind of type size normally reserved for war and natural disasters.

I bought a paper and stepped back onto the shuttle, rode it all the way back, walked a few blocks to the newspaper office and reported for duty.

By dusk, I was out in a suburban neighborhood in Jefferson County, talking with people who were neighbors of the houses where the two killers and their families lived. Everyone I talked to was in a state of stunned disbelief.

I don’t mean to exaggerate my role that day. I played a relatively small part in helping to report on a huge, heart-breaking story that was unlike anything my colleagues and I had ever covered before. It was a story that would consume all of us for the months and years that followed.

Besides the fresh sorrow I felt for the families of these latest victims, I’ve been thinking about my colleagues in Denver newsrooms, several of whom also covered Columbine.

They know, as I do, that this is the start of a long, grueling assignment.

Reporters have this instinct, when news happens, we answer the call. Sometimes doing the work is a kind of solace and means of coping with the tragedy we are covering.

But we are human beings as well and not immune from the suffering we’re reporting on – nor should we be.

Like everyone else, our hearts go out to friends and families who are living through this latest nightmare.

 

Postcript: On July 20, I also discussed media coverage of the shootings on SPJ member Jim Bohannon’s talk radio program in Washington, D.C. Here is a link to the podcast. My conversation with Jim starts about 40 minutes into the program.

Errors in reporting SCOTUS health care ruling remind us of the speeding bullet of journalism

It’s said that speed kills. It certainly can in journalism when accuracy is on the line.

I say this as someone who was a notorious slow writer when I first started as a reporter.

While my colleagues would breeze in and out of the newsroom, I’d be sitting there in quiet desperation trying to make deadline.

Fortunately, I got quicker with practice as time went on. But then newsroom clock sped up. Of all the seismic changes that occurred in the profession over the last five years, I think none have been more profound than the speed at which journalism is practiced.

To paraphrase the Albert Brooks character in the movie “Broadcast News”: I type it here and it comes out there.

The perils of practicing this hyper form of journalism were of full and awful display recently when the U.S. Supreme Court issued its long awaited landmark ruling upholding the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act.

You all probably know about the embarrassing gaffes by CNN and Fox News in their initial misreporting that the law had been struck down, when in fact, if they had just kept reading, they would have seen that it had been upheld.

The back-tracking that ensued provided plenty of comic material for Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show.” 

While much has been made of these two outlets’ mistakes, it’s also important to note how many journalists took those extra seconds, turned the page, continued reading and got it right.

Bloomberg News, for example, not only got it right, but got it first. A number of news organizations, including The Associated Press, also got it right and turned the story quickly.

One organization that did outstanding work that day was SCOTUSblog, which is written mostly by lawyers but has seasoned reporters on staff as well.

In my two years as a reporter covering courts in Colorado, I found SCOTUSblog to be an excellent resource for judicial coverage. The site really came into its own in a big way with the health care decision.

They also followed up with an excellent tick-tock account of how the story unfolded.

As SCOTUSblog points out, the court itself bears some responsibility for the errors that flowed within the first few minutes of releasing the decision.

By failing to post the decision on its website immediately and not emailing it to news organizations directly, the court created an environment ripe for this type of error.

Plus it didn’t help that Chief Justice John Roberts in writing the majority decision “buried the lead,” as judges are sometimes wont to do.

But the episode does drive home a point we would all do well to remember in this breathless up-to-the minute, down to the nano-second reporting that many of us are all being asked to do.

Take a breath. Read everything. Double check. Get it right the first time, even if it means you’re not the first one.

Toughing it out: Great journalism in hard times

Note: A version of this post is in the May/June issue of Quill magazine as John Ensslin’s “From the President” column.

We live in difficult times. Not a month goes by without fresh news of colleagues who have either lost their jobs or are left to deal with the harsh reality of a smaller newsroom operating on diminished resources.

It’s distressing to read about copy editors being laid off. As someone who has been saved from many an embarrassing gaffe, I’ve come to appreciate the value of a robust copy desk.

Shedding copy editors is like burning the furniture to stay warm. It’s a desperate option, and in the end, the news outlet gets burnt.

But hard times require hard people, and journalists — especially SPJ members — are a tough, creative and resourceful bunch.

For vivid proof, look no further than the May/June Quill, where we honor the work of this year’s Sigma Delta Chi Award winners from newsrooms large and small.

There are some amazing stories here. Take, for example, Corrine Reilly’s riveting description of an operating room in a NATO hospital in Afghanistan for The Virginian-Pilot.

Or the tough, ground-breaking stories that Sara Ganim and her colleagues at the Patriot-News did on the sex assault allegations against former Penn State football defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky — which also won a Pulitzer this year.

Or Matt Lakin’s exposé of an epidemic of pain-killer addiction in East Tennessee for the Knoxville News-Sentinel.

All of this work was done against the backdrop of news organizations that are stretched to meet their bottom line. But the work still gets done because reporters, editors, photographers and news directors believed in these stories. They did what had to be done.

We salute them, and I look forward to meeting these fellow journalists when we hold our annual SDX Awards banquet at the National Press Club on Friday, July 20.

If you are near the D.C. area, consider joining us. I know from attending last year’s banquet that it is an inspirational evening and well worth your time and the price of admission. See here for ticket information.

If you can’t be there, stay tuned for a series of “Studio SPJ” programs that will feature interviews with some of the winners on how they got their story. More on these and past programs is here.

Exceptional work like this gives me optimism for the future of journalism. I also found grounds for optimism recently while on a sentimental journey into journalism’s past.

In May, I visited Silverton, an old frontier mining town in southwest Colorado and home to the Silverton Standard & The Miner.

The purpose of my trip was to help dedicate a plaque commemorating the site of the newspaper’s office as one of SPJ’s Historic Sites in Journalism.

The Standard & The Miner became the 94th entry on our list and the second in Colorado, joining the Denver Press Club, which was added in 2008.

This weekly newspaper has been a fixture in Silverton since 1875, when it began telling the stories of this town through good times and bad.

You want to talk about tough times? How about this: The original publisher had to haul the printing press and then rolls of newsprint over a 10,910-foot mountain pass.

The paper has endured through boom and bust cycles as well as an outbreak of Spanish influenza that wiped out 10 percent of the town’s population.

What’s particularly remarkable about the paper’s recent history is what happened in 2009 when the previous owner was set to close the paper. The San Juan Historical Society stepped forward, bought the paper and continues to run it on a non-profit basis.

Silverton Mayor Chris Tookey summed up the town’s feelings at a May 5 dedication ceremony:

“We’re so excited that everybody got together and kept our newspaper alive,” she told the crowd that had gathered for the event.

I told the crowd that the plaque was not just to commemorate a site where journalism has been practiced. Rather, the honor was for the unbreakable bond that exists between this paper and its community.

The challenges we face today in serving our communities are no less daunting than they were for the owners of the Silverton paper when they had to haul newsprint over a steep mountain pass in the dead of a Colorado winter.

But as they showed then, and as our SDX Award winners show now, it can be done, and it will be done.

We are a tough, resourceful bunch. We will find our way.

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