Covering school shootings is one of the most difficult journalistic endeavors. These incidents are charged with emotion. When a story like this breaks locally the challenge increases considerably. Communities where shootings have taken place feel the reverberations for years. The same for the newsrooms.
The Blog watched with interest as a Virginian-Pilot front page remembering the victims of the horrendous shootings at Virginia Tech was passionately debated online. Some of the comments from outside VA didn’t seem to recognize the weight of these kinds of events on a local paper, how these papers have to balance the need for information and the parallel need to be part of a community’s collective heartbreak.
It is through this lens that The Blog takes a look at graphics and school shootings. When a gunman took a hostage in a small Colorado town last year, Jeff Goertzen, graphics editor at the Denver Post, and his staff sprang to action. They worked tirelessly to report and execute accurate news graphics explaining what happened.
Later, when Jeff saw the graphics from national TV coverage, he was struck by the difference in approaches between print and broadcast. Jeff grabbed samples of the graphics and went out and interviewed the Sheriff who ran the response to the shooting. What he found was very interesting and The Blog thinks it’s a good guide for thinking about coverage of these tragic stories.
Find this article interesting? The Blog suggests picking up the next issue of Design Journal this fall for the full article.
By Jeff Goertzen
Graphics editor, The Denver Post
Last September, in the small town of Bailey, Colorado, a suicidal gunman held several girls hostage and killed one in a Platte Canyon High School classroom. Park County Sheriff Fred Wegner had a son and a daughter that were students there at the time. On the heels of the Virginia Tech massacre and two days shy of the eight-year anniversary of the Colombine shooting, I met with Wagener to reflect on the tragedy that rocked his small community. We talked about the difficult decisions he had to make during that ordeal. We talked about the media. Then we talked about graphics to get his take on accuracy and how our graphics on the Platte Canyon shooting fared against those aired on national television. Here’s what he had to say:
JEFF: Where were you and what went through your mind when you first heard about the Virginia Tech shooting?
FRED: I was here at the office and had gone on the Internet to see what had transpired, and then watched the press conference. When the chief of police at Virginia Tech University got on, I realized that he and I had both gone to the national academy together in 2005.
JEFF: You felt a connection?
FRED: Definitely. Going through the same things.
JEFF: Did you contact him?
FRED: Later I tried. I knew he would be busy. I left a message with his son at home. He never got back with me, though. I guess he was pretty busy.
JEFF: How would you compare that with what happened at Platte Canyon?
FRED: The biggest difference with the Platte Canyon shooting was that it was a random act from somebody who had no ties to the school, whereas the Virginia Tech shooting was a student who was actually residing there and had all sorts of access to that university. It was hard to understand why someone would do such a thing to his fellow students and teachers.
JEFF: You’ve got a lot of strong ties to Platte Canyon High School.
FRED: Yeah, I graduated from Platte Canyon in 1981 and my sister graduated in 1982. I’ve lived in the Platte Canyon area for 36 years. My daughter graduated from that school in 2006 and my son will in 2008.
JEFF: It’s been seven months since the ordeal. Looking back, what is the one image or incident that haunts you?
FRED: I think the initial call. You know, the gunman in the school, the responding in, the chaos as I went into the school. Kind of a solemn event, ‘cause when I walked in, normally the halls are filled with kids off on their daily school activities, and there wasn’t anybody in the hallways at all. Also, going upstairs and hearing Morrison (the gunman, Duane Morrison), seeing my officers at the door and trying to figure out why this individual did what he did.
JEFF: You were with the officers when they stormed into the room?
FRED: Yeah, I was with the initial four officers that arrived on scene. (But he was not part of the SWAT team.)
JEFF: And you made the call to move in?
FRED: That is correct.
JEFF: Was that the toughest decision you ever had to make?
FRED: No doubt that was the toughest decision, and one that I would not only have to live with, that I think about every day.
JEFF: You were under a lot of stress at that time. How did you deal with it?
FRED: You know, I think that besides training, which is probably the biggest, I had support from the sheriff of Jefferson County, I had the district attorney, I had the SWAT commander that was there. I think with all of that and the good information I was receiving made the decision to go in a little bit easier. But it came down to the fact that you’re still dealing with human life and ultimately the loss of a human life.
JEFF: You were the voice and the face that people recognized in the papers and on television during all this.
FRED: Well, I just believe that as the elected sheriff, bad news should come from me. The folks elect you, they want to hear from you, and they put there trust in you.
JEFF: How were you prepared to deal with the media?
FRED: I had gone through a lot of classes. The biggest one, of course, was the FBI national academy. I went through a media relation class. I think the secret there for me was to be honest, make yourself available and be able to relay the information that was given to me. I don’t want folks making things up. I want to make sure they get the factual information out there so they can let everyone else know.
JEFF: Let’s talk about getting factual information. Do you ever feel strong-armed by a reporter or graphic artist saying, ‘This is what our sources have given us. Are you going to comment or elaborate on that?’
FRED: Yeah. I think the big concern for us when looking at that kind of information and trying to get it out is if the information I’m giving out is going to hamper the investigation efforts of the officers. We don’t want to show our hand too quickly if we’re looking for a suspect or we’re trying to gain additional investigative information. So you have to be really careful.
JEFF: How did you feel the local and national media covered the Platte Canyon High School shooting?
FRED: First of all, I’d have to say the local media was much more accommodating. I believe, also, they showed more of an interest and a compassion for what was going on in Bailey. And I think it’s typical because your national media is not as connected.
I take a moment to spread out several editions of The Denver Post on his desk to reflect on the coverage of the shooting. At times he smiles and points at some of the images as though he’s looking through an old photo album. At times, he’s somber and silent, shaking his head.
JEFF: What are you thinking?
FRED: As I look on the pages here, they show a strong representation of the school. I can’t believe how accurate the graphics are. They’re really well done.
JEFF: Have you had much experience with graphics before these?
FRED: Actually, no, I haven’t. And it’s neat to see these for the first time.
We focus in on one of the first graphics, which shows the floorplan of the school.
JEFF: You gave us the floorplan of the school. The diagram of the classroom where the hostage situation took place was based on a description from several students.
FRED: It looks pretty accurate. It shows the door, it shows the hallway. There wasn’t a window in the door, it’s actually alongside the door, off to the lefthand side. But it (the graphic) does have the classroom, the window that looks over the library. And the wall isn’t quite as deep as you have it here.
We then look at the graphic that we ran in the Post based on the final report released by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation (CBI).
FRED: This graphic has the wall just a little bit shallower, and you have the window exactly as they have it, alongside the door. The graphic has the implosion that was done on the water charge — that’s right where it was. And it’s pretty representative of where the cabinet was, where Morrison was inside the room and also where the hostages were.
JEFF: And the SWAT team, where it entered?
FRED: Pretty much. It has the path the SWAT team took to get to Morrison. Some of these desks, that’s how they looked prior to entry, but when the SWAT team actually moves through here, they actually throw these desks out of the way, trying to get to Morrison.
JEFF: A lot of the information in this graphic came to us from the CBI report released six months after the shooting. Is this information you already knew and could have given to us the day after the shooting?
FRED: No. That’s information we didn’t have September 29 (the day after), because we didn’t have a good debrief that day. CBI was still processing the room. So that’s information that, even if we had it, we would not have released until CBI had time to process the room.
JEFF: And had you given us that information, could that have hampered the investigation?
FRED: Yes, it could have. Because there were shots fired, and we want to figure out where those shots came from and from what angles. You don’t want to give that information until you’re sure your information is correct.
JEFF: When trying to hold back information, is it ever tempting to spill, or is that something you never have to wrestle with?
FRED: I think there’s a lot of times you’d like to release information. But you have to remember that the information we have is still one-sided. What we get is just what the officer may view. And until we have a chance to go in and take another look from somebody with another perspective, then you get a better feel for the overall picture.
I then play two 3-D animated video clips from ABC and CBS news that show their versions of the Platte Canyon shooting. Both clips aired on national television the day of the shooting.
JEFF: Give me your comments on these.
FRED: ABC’s graphic has a lot of inaccuracies. It’s not a good representation of the classroom. It talked about the concussion grenades. Concussion grenades aren’t used to blast. That’s a different explosive. They’re used strictly as a diversionary device. The ceiling’s wrong, the placement of the individuals in the room is wrong.
JEFF: Comparing the print graphics with the television graphics, what kind of impact do you feel both have on viewers and readers?
FRED: Like I said, the way it’s portrayed there in the video, he (Morrison) was never barricaded in the room. So when you get down to the actual facts, it makes it out that there was a lot of guessing going on, and I don’t think it puts across that professional image that journalism wants to present.
JEFF: We chose not to put people into our graphics, but the TV graphics put people in them.
FRED: I think there’s good reason for not putting people. Our guys weren’t wearing that type of clothing (points to the video graphic). It looked more like the military had stormed the classroom instead of law enforcement. If you look at the video, nowhere does it say ‘sheriff’ on the clothing. All our guys have ‘sheriff,’ or it says ‘police.’ So it looked like the military stormed the room, and that gave a bad impression.
JEFF: Having looked at some of these graphics, do you see graphics a little differently now?
FRED: Oh, yes, very much. I do like the 3-D images that you guys are able to do in the newspaper. I think that they would be helpful in understanding the chain of events. I would like to see something like this done as followup to whenever you have some sort of a situation like this.
JEFF: What are Sheriff Wegener’s five best tips to reporters.
FRED: Well, number one, understand that I have a job to do. Two, I understand that you have a job to do. Three, I’m going to try and get you the most factual information to you as soon as possible, because I understand that you need to get it out to the readers. Four, I’m not going to trick you. I’m going to be honest with my efforts to get you that information. Five, if I say I can’t comment on it, it means I can’t comment on it.
JEFF: What do you like best about your job?
FRED: Oh, that’s pretty easy. It’s the people.
JEFF: What do you like least?
FRED: Because there’s people I don’t know. You know, things have changed now. My job went from a rural sheriff to an urban sheriff.
As I glance around the room momentarily, I notice a framed picture of Barney Fife on the wall with the inscription “A true bloodhound.”
JEFF: Speaking of urban sheriffs! You’re a fan of Barney Fife?
FRED: Oh, yeah. (laughter) Barney Fife. I’ll bet you there’s not many people that know this, but Don Knotts was actually a drill sergeant the U.S. Marine Corps. He was a real mean son of a bitch!
Knotts was enlisted in the Army in 1943 and served in the Pacific. He received the World War II Victory Medal among other decorations. The fact that he was a mean drill sergeant is an urban legend. Eh!…close enough.