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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Bethany Barnes opens up on her experience covering the 2011 Congress on Your Corner shooting

Daily Wildcat: What was it like reporting on the shooting in 2011? What were your thoughts and feelings at the time? How did you set aside your feelings while reporting?

Barnes: It was very intense. I remember when we found out; I was an assistant news editor at the time and we were having our first meeting of the semester. … Someone got a text message on their phone, and it was [just] me, the other assistant news editor and the editor. … We were locked out of the newsroom and we eventually got inside. It was incredibly emotional because, if you remember, right when the news broke the reports actually [said] that she was dead. I remember we were sitting there having this debate on if she was dead, what do we go with, who do we attribute to and then figuring out where to go to [from there] … As a student, you’re not dealing with things on that emotional level when you’re reporting. You’re just not covering anything remotely that tragic. You might cover things where people are angry, but you’re not covering things that are life or death or people in any sort of great suffering at all. It was the first time [that] many of us had experienced covering something like that … I remember just sitting in the newsroom and staring at the headline [saying] that she died and thinking about what that meant and what was going to happen, and then the moment we found out that wasn’t true … It was kind of just an emotional roller coaster that first hour. 

How did reporting on that shooting shape you as a journalist? 

Right when the shooting had happened, I had just been thinking about applying to the master’s program at the [UA] because I had been working at the student paper, and it was something I did just as a hobby. I was in the creative writing program and I kept saying to my boyfriend at the time, “Oh you know, I’m just gonna be a little bit more involved, but it’s not ever going to be a thing.” Right around then, I started feeling like, “I have to be a journalist. I don’t ever want to stop doing this.” I had just kind of made the decision. I wasn’t 100 percent certain of it, and then this happened and we just jumped right into the story because it was so important. There was such a desperate need for information … I was just overwhelmingly aware of how important the job is because when you’re reporting on a tragedy … people just really want information … not just to feel less scared, but as a form of catharsis to really feel and add meaning to the moment, and journalists provide that. To be a part of that is important, and I felt like that was something I wanted to be able to do, especially because I felt like I had the ability to go and seek out what people wanted to know, even if it was gruesome, or scary, or painful because people need that information. 

What are your thoughts on media coverage of these mass shootings? 

I think it’s interesting because there’s a real debate about how do we cover these incidents, especially because they’re happening all the time now. So you have … sometimes really incredible coverage on a local level of who the victims were and how the community is affected and how these things came to happen, too. But then there’s the huge debate right now, too, about how much attention do you give to the shooter. … People are really torn. We want to know the details of how this happened and who these people are, but you don’t want to glorify them. Especially because there’s this feeling that a lot of people do this because they want their face in the paper. They want to be infamous. … [News outlets] think about playing into exactly what somebody wanted [when that person] did something despicable. … I think that’s something that newspapers are still wrestling with. There was a lot of really interesting debate about the shootings recently, of the broadcast journalist, because there were just horrifying indications that [the shooter] wanted that to be known. He was tweeting about it. … I don’t think people have figured out the balance yet, and I think that’s something we have to grapple with. 

What are your thoughts about news outlets publishing manifestos like what the [Arizona Daily] Star did with the [2002 UA shooter’s] manifesto?

I think it’s a really tough question on what to do with that type of information. Particularly because if someone’s leaving a manifesto, they’re leaving it because they want you to publish it. They want that to be out there, which puts news media in this very weird situation of being kind of complicit in somebody’s elaborate plot … At the same time, our job is to relay information, and I think our instinct is to not censor things and to give everybody that information. … It’s weird for journalists to be put in a position where you’re limiting information. … People turn to journalists to help them distill and synthesize information and what we’re telling people; we’re naturally drawing attention to it. So, I think I tend to lean toward [that] you report on the manifesto—[they’re] documents that you can use to inform your reporting as you cover it. Putting it on a website or putting it out there just makes me kind of uncomfortable. I think you have to handle it case by case. … To what extent, then, does it become giving him a platform? I think that’s the question—that it’s kind of a dangerous line there. Journalists should certainly have access to that information as they piece together what happened and why it happened because it’s certainly a useful reporting tool. … I think it’s a tough call … I mean, that’s the thing that’s getting more and more debated now: … What do we do with these things that people leave behind, and what are we drawing attention to? But also what are we giving public access to—because journalists always want the public to have access. But then it’s uncomfortable when you have people knowing journalists always want people to have access and using that. 

What is the media’s responsibility to the public in reporting on these mass shootings?

I think journalists have several roles in reporting on mass shootings, but it’s sort of a layered process. There’s the immediate role, especially for the local reporters that are there when it happens, to get the information out to people as quickly as possible. You want to know that there’s a responsibility to figure out who is affected to tell those stories, but the big thing I think that everyone’s grappling with now is digging into why these [shootings] happen and looking at the factors there. Looking at gun accessibility, what lawmakers are debating on and what they feel are contributing factors, looking at if mental health is a factor. Journalists have a job in the immediate moment to provide coverage so that people can know what’s going on … But also, the interesting thing, looking at journalists’ jobs with mass shootings, [is] now is we’re seeing a trend, we’re seeing more and more of them. There’s a lot of really great reporters now digging into America’s relationship with guns and they’re doing a lot of great work looking at, “where are these happening, what are the patterns and what are people doing about it?” Because there’s more shootings now. It’s journalists’ job to dig into the policies and factors that affect our lives, in many ways, and mass shootings are certainly something that affect our lives on a very catastrophic level. These things happen and an entire community grieves—multiple people are affected and things are changed. We live in a world now where people go to the movies and have their bags checked. [The Colorado movie theater shooting] was just stunning in the sense that I don’t think people ever really thought about [a shooting] happening in a movie theater. I mean, it’s changed the physical spaces we’ve lived in. I remember when Columbine happened, I was in elementary school and then I was terrified of the idea of going to high school. Mass shooting coverage is incredibly important right now because these things keep happening and we’re having to adapt daily parts of our lives, normal things that we do, because they’re happening in these regular spaces. If you look at the Giffords shooting, it [was] a political event outside of a Safeway. There was a lot of debate after that [about] how much interaction can politicians have with the public. But they’re elected officials. They want to be out there shaking people’s hands and getting to know their community. They don’t want to be scared of their community. What do you do with that? And that’s where journalists come in. They go in and they ask those questions and they can make these connections that other people in their roles can’t. A journalist can come in and they can interview law enforcement, they can interview policymakers, they can interview the victims and they can [file Freedom of Information Act] requests that get data so we can actually start to connect some dots, and I think that’s what reporters need to be doing and that’s what a lot of reporters are doing.


Follow Meghan Fernandez on Twitter.


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