Columbine. Virginia Tech. Sandy Hook. An Aurora, Colorado, movie theater. Pulse nightclub. Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. The Las Vegas outdoor concert. Tree of Life synagogue. Borderline Bar & Grill. ¶ These places have become synonymous with mass shootings, and visual journalists were at all of them to capture compelling images of armed police, screaming victims and grieving mourners for all the world to see. ¶ The dangerous and graphic nature of covering these types of disasters can wreak emotional havoc on journalists; that has been known for decades. But the fact that shootings and deadly wildfires are happening at such an alarming frequency is why they’re sparking a national conversation about mental health and physical safety of journalists and newsrooms. ¶
On June 28 last year, tragedy became personal when five Capital Gazette journalists (Rebecca Smith, Wendi Winters, Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen and John McNamara) were gunned down in their Annapolis, Maryland, newsroom, forcing the staff to cover their own story out of a parking garage.
“It’s difficult to talk about,” confessed Joshua McKerrow, a photojournalist with the Capital Gazette, who said he’s been public about how the shooting has left him with PTSD. “Not ‘having a hard time getting over it’ or ‘bad moods,’ but legitimate PTSD,” he emphasized.
“I’ve been a photojournalist for 20 years. I’ve seen a lot, but this is so much bigger. I’ve heard from other journalists who were suffering in silence, only bringing it up with me after I’ve talked about it publicly. So I guess what I’m saying is we have a culture of toughing it out and not talking about the trauma we witness. And that’s not healthy or truthful,” McKerrow said.
McKerrow thinks journalists need to address their trauma head-on and that newsrooms should have cultures that recognize and support that. But the Gazette’s only response was to bring in a counselor for about a week after the shooting.
Sally Stapleton, managing editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, said security has been a big issue with news organizations for a long time, but the Capital Gazette story is forcing managing editors and owners, no matter the newsroom size, to look at what they are doing and to find their vulnerabilities.
One of the 2018 shootings was a local story for the Post-Gazette staff. On the morning of Oct. 27, a man barged into the Tree of Life synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood in Pittsburgh and killed 11 people. At least six others were wounded, including four police officers.
It was a deadly hate crime committed against the Jewish community, and Post-Gazette journalists quickly were on the scene. Among the first staff photographers to show up was Allie Wimley.
Wimley said all anyone knew at the time was that an active shooter was at the synagogue. Living only five minutes away, she arrived before the shooter was even in custody.
“I took most of the photos of police action in about 15 minutes after arriving,” Wimley recalled. “I heard distinctly a round of gunfire being exchanged between the shooter and police inside the building, probably only five minutes after I started photographing.
“It was also in that period of time that I took the photo of Rabbi Jeffrey Myers fleeing from the building. Unlike most crime scenes I’ve covered, there was no police tape or barricade set up to make it clear where journalists can be, so a lot of it was a matter of common sense and reading the environment,” said Wimley, a Boston University journalism graduate who had been at the Post-Gazette only three months.
“There were police officers who knew press were there, and if any of us were clearly visible, they would implore us to back up or leave. I was also reading body language of the officers on the scene to have a better sense of what was evolving. At some point their body language relaxed, and they didn’t all have their guns drawn, so I knew I could move more freely and file,” she said.
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On the opposite coast from the Tree of Life synagogue is the city of Thousand Oaks, California, about 40 miles northwest of Los Angeles.
According to NICHE, an online research site, the city is one of the 2018 Safest Cities in America, based on crime rate data from the FBI and U.S. census. Thousand Oaks is ranked third. However, in 2018, photojournalists from the Thousand Oaks Acorn weekly newspaper responded to two unrelated shootings in that city, one at The Oaks shopping mall, the other at Borderline Bar & Grill.
Acorn photo editor Richard Gillard said the photo staff at his hometown newspaper is more accustomed to covering brush fires, so staffers are issued fire protective equipment and have attended fire safety seminars conducted by the Los Angeles Fire Department.
“It is important when photographing a fire to use common sense and to be aware of your surroundings, and to understand the science of a brush fire,” explained Gillard. “Each year we typically have a few smaller brush fires in our coverage area. Shootings, however, are not as common.”
But the shootings at the mall last March and the Borderline Bar in November could shatter that perception. The mall shooting was a domestic situation between spouses, but it was a different story at the bar, where 12 people died in an attack by a Marine veteran, who then turned the gun on himself.
“It made me realize that if a mass shooting could happen here, it could happen anywhere,” Gillard said, referencing Thousand Oaks’ high safety ranking. “It has changed the way I approach things, not only at work, but in all aspects of life. Just as in photographing a fire, I am more aware of my surroundings. When I am gathered with a large group, like at the mall or at a church or a concert, I like to keep an eye on the door.”
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Stapleton noted how newsrooms have changed in the past few years: “It’s not hard to find 24-7 security at newsrooms. We did not before, but we do now.”
She, like Gillard, says awareness is important. “We can have all the video cameras up in the world, all the plans; we can put bolts on bathrooms; we can do all kinds of things; but as much as anything, we want to make everyone aware of all the potentials and have ongoing conversations regarding security situations for our colleagues. We are not done upgrading,” she emphasized.
“An adjunct to this is not just to be physical-body secure, but also watch the emotional health of colleagues after something like this. Under the most awful circumstances, I like this trend that we are talking a lot amongst ourselves, and sharing and being open and transparent. You need a whole newsroom to buy into the importance of security. Everybody is getting involved, and I think that’s wonderful,” she said.
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A week into the coverage of the devastating Camp Fire in Paradise, California, in November, San Francisco Chronicle Editor-in-Chief Audrey Cooper wrote a first-person essay on how the recurring tragedies are changing journalism and journalists.
“There is a perception that journalists simply take from the victims,” she wrote. “We do take their stories, their photos. We do these things not because we relish it but because the public must know. There is power in the truth, even if it is a truth some would rather not see. There is also incredible sorrow and empathy, feelings that are often difficult to absorb before you can make sense of it for the public.”
With the intensity of the Post-Gazette’s coverage of the Tree of Life tragedy, Rebecca Droke, the assistant managing editor for visuals, noted that it was critical to ensure photographers and photo editors were given time off to rest and recharge.
“It was important to check in with colleagues to ensure they were receiving the support they needed as they dealt with what they were witnessing,” she said. “The mental health of the staff was, and is, just as important as their physical health.” ■
Lori King is a photojournalist at the Toledo (Ohio) Blade and an adjunct photojournalism instructor. She can be reached via her website at lori-king.squarespace.com.