Covering a Mass Shooting, and Adding to a Town’s Pain

Photo
Covering a Mass Shooting, and Adding to a Town’s Pain
Journalists filmed live shots in Sutherland Springs, Tex, on Nov. 6. Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times

SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Tex. — It wasn’t the television presenters elbowing their way to the front of the scrum near the massacre scene that finally drove home how the news media was aggravating the tragedy here. It wasn’t the run on food at Theresa’s Kitchen or the point at which the number of journalists seemed to rival the few hundred souls of the town’s population.

It was the scene in Rosanne Solis’ living room.

Ms. Solis, 57, a former factory worker who was shot in the shoulder when a gunman killed 26 people at the First Baptist Church last week, had agreed to an interview with The New York Times. Through fatigue and pain, she described in detail the trauma of surviving one of the most hideous mass shootings in United States history.

As I got up and thanked Ms. Solis for her graciousness at such a strenuous time, the door to her trailer home swung open and a swarm of other journalists rushed inside. Without asking permission, a photographer began taking pictures a few inches from Ms. Solis’ face. A television crew insisted on an interview as she tended her wound.

“Please, no, I’m just too tired,” Ms. Solis told them.

But as I went to my rental car to file my story, no one seemed to heed her plea that she was too exhausted to talk. Sitting behind the wheel, I gazed at the horizon and wondered what those of us documenting this tragedy were doing to this poor town.

I’ve covered gruesome events around the world — earthquakes, hurricanes, fires. But none of those experiences prepared me for the media maelstrom in Sutherland Springs, a tiny, poverty-stricken town hit by the unimaginable slaughter of babies, children and adults in one of its houses of worship.

Continue reading the main story

Ignoring such shootings, or passively accepting how widespread and devastating they are becoming, cannot be an option.

But there may also be something terribly wrong with the spectacle of covering this bloodshed. By now, some of my colleagues are veteran chroniclers of such shootings, grimly bumping into one another with gallows humor over the past few years in Las Vegas; Colorado Springs; San Bernardino, Calif.; Roseburg, Ore.; and Orlando, Fla.

Perhaps because of the small size of Sutherland Springs, the ungainliness of the media’s rush to cover the latest shooting touched a nerve here. As satellite trucks staked out coveted parking spots and broadcasters from around the world described the town’s horrors in German or Russian or Portuguese, tempers flared.

Photo
Covering a Mass Shooting, and Adding to a Town’s Pain
Rosanne Solis was wounded in the shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs. Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Some residents in the town simply slammed doors in journalists’ faces, a reaction any of us might have had under such circumstances. Others in the town put a price on their cooperation. Reporters from a wide array of organizations scrambled to interview anyone else they could find.

“Eventually the media pressure began to weigh even on me,” Lauren McGaughy, a reporter for the Dallas Morning News, wrote in an eloquent apology to the people of Sutherland Springs. “I did a few on-the-ground interviews before rejecting the rest. It was too stressful. I expressed my growing disgust with a few other journalists, and many agreed with me.”

Journalists were not the only ones who descended on the town. Sidewalk preachers from San Antonio convened at the Valero gas station opposite the church, bellowing their prayers, if not in front of townspeople then for reporters’ iPhone cameras. Chaplains from the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team meandered through the town.

Brad Kessler, an aspirant for mayor of San Antonio, dropped in to shake hands around the yellow crime-scene tape that cordoned off the killing field. The Homicide Survivors Support Group of Corpus Christi set up a table with stuffed animals, where reporters quickly conducted interviews with the volunteers.

I grew up in a rural outpost in northern New Mexico about the size of Sutherland Springs. I know how suspicious, and sometimes awed, residents of small towns can be of privileged, big-city visitors. Still, I have a hard time imagining what it’s like for the people here to have so many cameras pointed at them and so many tape recorders thrust their way.

As some of the network television trucks began to pull out of town, I wondered how big a role I myself had played in amplifying the suffering of Sutherland Springs. After all, I, too, had approached residents who wanted nothing to do with reporters. I’d asked Ms. Solis, the factory worker, to talk to me when she could have been tending the shoulder where a bullet had sundered her flesh.

When the country endures one mass shooting after another, why they happen certainly ought to be the main focus of the national conversation. But maybe it’s time we also discuss how they’re covered on the ground.

For now, I’m left wondering what happens next in Sutherland Springs.

Bertha Cardenas-Lomas, 57, the head of the town’s cemetery board, seemed to be in shock as I interviewed her, expressing dismay over all the friends and neighbors she now has to bury. She touched on what it’s like to face a barrage of interview requests when she’s struggling to simply mow the grass on the burial ground.

“No one can ever be prepared to find their way in this situation,” she said, holding her head in her hands. “I’m afraid that the real pain, the reality of this violence, will set in when all of you are gone.”

Continue reading the main story