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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


It happened here: A look back on the 2002 shooting at the UA College of Nursing

Daily Wildcat: What was it like reporting on the UA shooting in 2002? What were your feelings and thoughts at the time? How did you set aside your feelings while reporting?

Gabrielson: Well, I think what’s true of all reporting on breaking news of that nature is the scramble to get a sense of what is happening or what has happened. [It] is so overwhelming that you’re not thinking about your reaction to it because you’re trying to figure out what in the world just happened and to synthesize that information as quickly as possible to tell whatever community you serve, whatever readership you serve. This was forever ago—it was 2002— but you know, we were still trying to post stories immediately online. That makes it a lot easier in the sense of how you’re responding to the fact that something has just happened to your community. You can’t really think about it until the end of the day, because you’re too busy to consider how you feel about whatever’s going on. You’re just trying to figure out what happened and get as much detail as possible and find the people who were very directly affected by it. 

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

It was definitely traumatic. I don’t plan too far ahead in terms of what I want to cover because news will dictate for you, the real world will dictate you what needs to be covered most of the time. I do investigative reporting, which gives me the luxury of spending months and months, occasionally more than a year, to really dig into something. … My priorities are so often driven by like something has happened in the world, and it doesn’t appear that anyone’s explaining it or anyone’s getting to it. … It was a learning experience pretty early, obviously, in my career that major events will drive your priorities. And never get too comfortable, never plan too far ahead, because the real world will come in and shatter everything.

This was 13 years ago. How has media coverage of mass school shootings changed since then?

It’s very dramatic in one regard because newspapers used to dominate Not only the breaking news part of it, but providing the full package of what happened and how people felt about it … Really exhaustive coverage that newspapers used to have the resources to do where … a huge share of a newsroom would be committed to figuring out how an atrocity could happen.

That doesn’t happen the same way anymore because newspapers just don’t have the body. They don’t have nearly as many people with experience covering things in this way. And they still do good stuff … but in terms of the depth of the coverage that comes in the hours and the days after the event, my observation is that it’s nowhere near as good as it used to be. Television dictates a lot more of our general understanding of what’s transpired, and they don’t have newspaper reporters to lean on for context. … I would just say it’s been more shallow.

That doesn’t mean journalism is going to be doomed, but it does mean that right now we are in a place where we’re hurting; … the coverage is a lot more reactionary. It goes so quickly to just the same old, pre-conceived narrative, which kind of always happened to some extent, but really happens now where … there’s a shooting, … let’s just discuss gun control legislation. You know? Which is not that that shouldn’t happen, but it’s like we don’t take the time to figure out really what happened to these people and how and dive in the way we all used to.

I remember after the UAshooting, The Chronicle of Higher [Education] a few months later went in and just did a gorgeous, I mean heart-breaking piece just going step-by-step in amazing detail on what happened that day, and so few outlets, especially a national outlet like that, come in to the UA and commit the resources to do that.

This has also become a lot more common. … They’ve become much more vicious. … The shooter at the UA—I forget his name—I mean he [was] a murderer. He was sort of more of an older model, where it was very personal, very directed at three professors who he had convinced himself that had wronged him no matter how completely baseless that is. … It wasn’t racking up a body count.

A lot of the more recent [shootings], … they’re just senseless. The UA murders were senseless, but now they’ve really kind of spiraled and some of them are taking cues from the UA shooter, where he sent out his manifesto to the Arizona Daily Star and a day or so after the murders, we got to see the inside of his brain. And now that’s kind of more routine, either through actual intentional sort of delivery of those types of manifestos, or we just compile it together from people’s social media accounts.

Nowadays images of the shooter pop up all over social media. Some people think that publishing the shooter’s name and their photos glamorizes them and what they’ve done. What do you think about that?

I think our job is to tell people what happened, who did what to whom and how. Does it give a certain amount of notoriety? I mean, I guess, yeah, I can’t say that it doesn’t. But these people are almost always already dead, and we can’t abdicate our responsibility to bear witness in full detail of what occurred.

We can’t just start like saying, “Oh, we’re going to not tell the full truth that we know what happened.” When there was the murder of a former TV reporter who went during a live broadcast and killed his former colleagues—you know, that went on loop. What do you do? How do you convince people in the midst of something like that to not just keep airing something that’s so horrible and newsworthy? … I’m trying not to sound so, you know, kind of curmudgeony about it, but when you talk about glamorizing, what you’re talking about really is putting someone’s face and name on repeat on cable news, and that has really nothing to do with fully reporting out what happened.

It’s a different thing. Putting something on just repeat, yeah, that elevates somebody’s persona. But just reporting what happened, … we have a commitment to tell the full story. 

What are your thoughts about news outlets publishing manifestos, like what the Star did with the UA student’s manifesto?

I mean, it’s news. Understanding what these people think that they’re doing gives us insight. … We haven’t gotten any better at spotting the threats and neutralizing them. We’re barely beyond the point of doing mental illness as, you know, some sort of character flaw. I don’t see how you can choose not to cover something that sheds the light into what line of thought lead to such horror. We can’t pretend that these things don’t exist. … I actually thought the Star handled it, you know? They covered it really exhaustively and with as much sensitivity as humanly possible.

At the end of the day, though, our responsibility is to the public, to the audience, to the readers, to the viewers, to whoever’s going to consume our stories, to give them everything that’s relevant to what happened, and I just don’t see how you can not cover [it]. … Now, if you’re trying to piece together a bunch of desperate social media postings. … Now we have the mindset that we always have to find the record of what in their head led them to do this and whether the record online is sufficient to actually achieve that is on a case-by-case basis. 

How has being a family man affected the way you would report on a mass school shooting today?

I always had mentors who showed me how to be a human being while being a reporter, and so being a father—I mean, you’re raising kids in this world—it certainly helps to fuel passion to expose wrongs, because I want to do everything I can to help improve the world that they’re coming up into. But in terms of this type of thing, you know, you don’t have to have a family to try to make sure you’re a human being. Now this doesn’t mean not doing the interviews. It means, the way you approach people. … Always be a human being at the same time you’re a reporter. In covering the UA shooting, it helped that we were all students. I mean, I’m not saying that other reporters who were [from] The Arizona Republic and the Daily Star and stuff didn’t do great work that day—they did. But I think we were able to get a lot of important details about exactly step-by-step how the thing unfolded because we were students talking to students. 

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

As I was saying earlier … we’re trying to fill the void up with actual hard information, which we fail at all the time. Sometimes for very understandable reasons—when you’re rushing to try to figure something out, … we assume that because law enforcement has told us something that they actually know it, but they’re human beings, too. And they’re responding to the same sort of circumstances as the reporters are. So they get a lot of stuff wrong. And then we’re reporting things that come from all sorts of places. … We’re so desperate to just fill the void that we forget that our job is to not just fill the void, but fill it with something that people can actually hold onto, that we have checked that we’re not just getting from one good law enforcement source inside, who may be operating on good faith but is just wrong. Because in the fog of war, so to speak, when things are playing out in real time … there’s no such thing as instant analysis. … We have to check what is actual fact and what is assumption or misunderstanding. … Oftentimes our initial sources on these types of stories are not the actual witnesses. … Our responsibility is to actually give people something real, something true we have checked. … We need to come to terms that it’s okay to say we don’t know. … It’s our job to pause and test that information before we put it out. We embarrass ourselves time and time again on these stories because we’re trying to fill the void without remembering that that’s not the actual job.

Follow Meghan Fernandez on Twitter.

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