HSJMC grads find themselves covering major U.S. tragedies.
By Amanda Fretheim Gates and Katie Dohman
When a man opened re on a country music festival on Oct. 1, 2017, the Las Vegas Review Journal was immediately on the scene. Blake Apgar (B.A. ’16) covers the police beat for the newspaper and heard the shooting news over the scanner. He arrived at Mandalay Bay 10 minutes after the shooting ended. He followed Twitter for police updates and got swept up in the hotel’s lockdown. Jessie Bekker (B.A. ’17) covers health care and immigration for the Review Journal and received the call to come in late that evening. Other HSJMC alumni working on the coverage after the shooting included: Bridget Bennett (B.A. ’16), Elizabeth Brumley (B.A. ’15), Betsy Helfand (B.A. ’15), Arthur Kane (B.A. ’93), Ben Gotz (B.A. ’16) and Sam Gordon (B.A. ’14).
When tragedy strikes, journalists are some of the first people to get there, after the first responders. “It was 100 percent all hands on deck,” said Bekker. “Some went down to the Strip immediately to find out what was going on; we didn’t know the scale. Around midnight I went to the hospitals in the area but was not very successful—a lot of them were locked down, understandably. In the days that followed, everyone came in early and stayed as long as they could and did everything they could.”
Most of the Journal’s reporters on the scene that night were one to three years out of college, said Keith Moyer, editor in chief and former senior fellow for the Hubbard School. And even as a 40-year news veteran, Moyer said he wasn’t prepared to hear the final numbers of those dead and injured. “There’s no plan for that,” he said. “Whoever needs to be called is called, you don’t care what their beat is. We were an hour and 15 minutes from our print deadline.” While the Journal was able to hold off for an extra hour, they still had to go to print without the full details, updating the paper’s website throughout the night.
Responsibility of Truth
Apgar and Bekker both agree that a frustrating aspect of covering a tragedy of magnitude is that, try as you might, the wrong information can still be published by other outlets. While the Journal handled the story with very specific standards—they only reported a death after talking to a reputable source—they still saw fake stories about people who were not victims. They also had to manage the influx of national media that arrived at the site of tragedy, stayed for a few days, then left.
“To see [incorrect stories] as a journalist is upsetting because it gives people a reason not to trust us,” Bekker said. “At the end of the day, national media can swoop in and cover this on the surface level, but we are the local paper of record. It’s our job to make sure that what we put out there is what people can turn to for years.”
The Journal wanted to write about more than just the deaths, Moyer said. Reporters attended funerals and looked to highlight the human spirit of the victims, first responders and heroes. “Our staff became a tight-knit staff that week and everyone left with an even higher respect for each other,” Moyer said. “Some of it you can teach, but some of it you’re born with. And we’re not going to be done with this story for a long time. We’re still here.”
Journalists are Humans
The aftermath of covering a tragedy can take its toll. Both Bekker and Apgar agree that the night’s details are still a blur and remain difficult to talk about. Newsroom leaders made sure professional services were available to those who might need to decompress after such an event. The Houston Chronicle sent pizza and cookies and opened up a bar tab down the street. Some reporters were working 18-hour days and, perhaps due to fatigue, around 20 reporters and editors were struck by the flu in early November.
Nothing can prepare you for event like this, Apgar, Bekker and Moyer said. Yet a journalist still has to do the job. In school, these graduates were taught to separate from their sources, but it’s not so easy when they’re talking to loved ones of those who were just lost. “Journalists are humans,” Bekker said. “It’s OK to be upset and to feel for these people who are grieving. A couple sources told me that talking about it was helping them process, and that helped me, too. I remembered it’s in my hands to help the world remember their loved one. They aren’t just a number.”
Covering Puerto Rico
It’s a journalist’s job to continue to tell the stories of tragedies during the days, weeks and months that follow. McKenna Ewen (B.A. ‘09), digital producer for CNN, traveled to Puerto Rico one month after Hurricane Maria hit on Sept. 20, 2017. When he arrived, there were 1 million Puerto Ricans still without water and 3 million without power. He made a return trip back in early November. During those trips, the CNN team worked to identify municipalities that were not receiving aid and told the stories about the challenges these residents were facing.
“When we arrived in Puerto Rico, our focus was trying to better understand the needs of its people,” said Ewen, who shoots, writes and edits short documentary films for the network. “We found families drinking water from potentially contaminated drinking sources, living in structurally unsafe homes and bracing 90-degree days without power.”
Visual journalism in a time of crisis can be very powerful. It’s one thing to read about a tragedy and another to see it. The lack of power and water provided the context for the reporting and filming during both trips. “It’s hard to express how significant water and power are for everyday life,” Ewen said. One of his pieces, filmed during his first trip, shows a woman living without a roof, as rain falls onto her bed. “I never fully appreciated the value of having a tarp after a storm, but to see people living without a roof and watch water collect on their floors was difficult to see,” he said. (Another film checked the accuracy of the hurricane's death toll.)
Ewen also covered Hurricane Harvey, which hit Houston, Texas, on Aug. 26, 2017. He watched hundreds of energy vehicles along coastal roads working to repair downed power lines, saw that most of the city had drinking water and, despite the widespread damage, saw a city rebuilding. In Puerto Rico, he saw hopeful people turn frustrated as the days and weeks went on. “There was a level of desperation that I had not seen from previous storms,” he said. “Most communities were receiving little, if any, aid, especially toward the center of the island.”