Caught in the Middle of the Dallas Ambush

(Photo by Ting Shen, Dallas Morning News)

By Tom Burton

ATHENS, GA (July 11, 2016) The crowd carried signs and chanted as they marched back to Belo Garden Park in Dallas on July 7. By all accounts, it had been a peaceful demonstration as they paraded through downtown, protesting the police shootings of black men in Baton Rouge and Minnesota days before. People had brought their children, some in strollers. Dallas police were in their standard uniforms as they blocked streets to allow the marchers a safe path.

It was late in the day when Josh Stephen was walking backwards in front of the march, framing his video camera on the protestors. The assistant chief photographer for WFAA had been there for a couple of hours and was finishing up his coverage when faint pops were heard. A startled man in front of Stephen stopped, looked past Stephen and started saying “Wait? Wait? Wait?”

Stephen spun his camera around and saw hundreds of people running at him. Frantic and scared, they were fleeing from the now louder sounds of gunfire. He ran towards the noise.

“They were all running east. I was running west,” said Stephen.

Watch WFAA video "The Anatomy of an Ambush" here

It would hours before the details become clearer. A sniper had opened fire, targeting police officers in an ambush. By the end of the night, five officers had been killed and seven more wounded. Two civilians were also shot.

News coverage had been planned for a routine afternoon, but the shootings turned it to a long, tense night. Facing this, photojournalists on scene relied on good preparation, teamwork and sometimes luck.

For the team from the Dallas Morning News, advanced planning and teamwork paid off. Photo Editor Irwin Thompson decided to send three photographers to the demonstration, each concentrating on a different platform. Smiley Pool would shoot stills for the print edition, Gerry McCarthy would shoot video for online and Ashley Landis would use an iPhone to post live photos and videos to the @dallasnewsphoto Twitter account.

As the demonstration unfolded, the photographers kept in touch with each other but worked independently, concentrating on their assignments.  Pool and Landis ran into each outside a parking garage near El Centro Community College near the end of the march. They made their way to the roof for overhead shots. After about 10 minutes, Pool went to his car to send photos for the 9 p.m. early print deadline and Landis filed a short video to Twitter and climbed down 13 stories of stairs to street level.

Moments later, people were running and Landis heard shots. She went back into the parking garage and made video of SWAT officers coming into the building, guns drawn. It was much later that Landis and Pool realized that the gunfire was coming from the same parking garage. They could have been in the building when the gunman arrived.

Pool was in his car just finishing transmitting when he saw people running and he heard two pops. He grabbed cameras and was kneeling by the car, loading his cards when the gunfire erupted. He laid prone on the sidewalk until it stopped.

He then crouched and ran to behind a brink planter for cover then to a position behind a car. A police officer there told him “Stay down, stay low, shooter’s high.” It was from that position he made a photo of a tactical team approaching in line, guns drawn. It was one of the most widely distributed photos from the attack.

When the shooting started, the Morning News photographers began filing to the office and social media in near real time. McCarthy was using Twitter for short videos then met up with Landis to use some of her equipment to file his DLSR video via Slack. Pool was at his car, making photos and filing from his laptop.

The photographers filed often and quickly because the demand for information was immediate. “There is no real deadline for digital first,” said McCarthy. The deadline is right now.

See the Dallas Morning News interactive gallery here. (G.J. McCarthy, Dallas Morning News)

As darkness fell, lighting became a challenge. Landis was dealing with the limitations of an iPhone but like Stephen, she followed the sound instead of the image. Even with very little light on the scene, the audio of people running, officers yelling directions, sirens and gun shots conveyed the story in her videos.

Photo Editor Michael Hamtil had confidence in the team he called “high performers in multitasking and quick delivery.” As the chaos began to unfold, he trusted the photographers in the field to do their jobs, contacting them only as they were getting close to the print deadlines that had been extended to get the breaking news into print.

The team had also been part of the digital first initiative at the Morning News that emphasizes moving stories quickly to digital platforms. The photo department had been working this way for awhile, but a stronger push and a beefed up digital desk in the newsroom upped the game.

“At this point, quickly producing photos and videos for our digital audience is a fast-twitch muscle for our visual journalists,” said Morning News editor Mike Wilson. “They understand that in big news events, people are peering into their phones, looking for information right now.”

See the Dallas Morning News interactive gallery here. (Photo by Smiley Pool, Dallas Morning News)

The DMN also had old fashioned right-place-right-time good luck. Hamtil sent summer intern Ting Shen to Baylor Hospital shortly after the shooting began to watch for casualties being brought in. The normal five-minute drive was closer to 20 as Shen navigated blockaded streets in his 2001 Volvo that was barely surviving a Dallas summer.

Shen was the only still photographer at the hospital when he arrived and he walked causally along the sidewalk across the street with cameras at his side. He heard sobbing coming from the emergency room entrance and raised his camera that had a 300mm f/2.8 lens.

He saw an officer holding and comforting a colleague and he made photos in the 15-20 second window he had. Officers moved him back right after that and he transmitted the photo shortly after. It was the front-page photo on the next day’s Morning News as well as dozens of other newspapers across the country.

The broadcast journalists were also relying on their experience and instinct to navigate this dangerous event. Stephen had been on as a “floater” for assignments that day, picking up the demonstration as something he could shoot then leave with editors. He need the anticipate free time after the demonstration to pack gear for a trip to Cleveland for the Republican National Convention.

When he arrived at the demonstration, he grabbed his camera, extra batteries, two-way radio and his LiveU backpack and headed to the streets. The crowd was peaceful so he left his Kevlar vest in the car.

Brandon Mowry, another WFAA photojournalist, arrived later and was working with a reporter for a package. He had just picked up a card from Stephen and was ingesting the files when he and the reporter heard the first pops. At first they thought it was fireworks. Then they saw people running.

Both Mowry and Stephen adhered to a news video rule and kept their cameras continuously rolling, even as they ran through the streets. Mowry got closer to the action, then began to see and hear bullets hitting around him.

“This is insane,” he said, “I just jumped and ran to the car.”

Raw WFAA video by Brandon Mowry

Stephen, meanwhile, was following the police toward the shooting, eventually taking shelter near enough that he could see the officers who had been brought down and could hear the continuing gun battle.

All this time, Stephen was giving updates through his radio earpiece for the live feed. His knew his picture was feeding directly to ABC News, so he talked clearly and carefully, even when he was out of breath. A producer later noted that despite the scene unfolding around him, Stephen was so cool that he never cursed during the live feeds.

Mowry had repositioned with the reporter to an area where citizens were huddled, seeking cover behind a small berm. They also went to a live feed and began interviews and updates. Stephens was pinned down near the shooting scene for hours. Eventually, when things slowed down, Mowry was able to come in to deliver him water and fresh batteries.

The live, real time coverage provided by these journalists also lead to a modern connectivity in their personal lives. They all had texts and cell calls from friends during the attack. A photographer for the Morning News was called by CNN and asked for a live update. Stephen had a text from his brother from New York who was watching his live feed on the internet.

They also had long days. None of them left the scene before 3:30 a.m. Morning News photo editor Thompson had worked a full shift, gone home, and came back at 10 p.m. to start a shift that didn’t end until 7 p.m. the next day. It was a long day where instinct and training kicked in, he said.

“As the chaos is going, you’re not really thinking. You’re on autopilot,” said Thompson.

The adrenaline of the moment also pushed aside some of the instinctive emotions of the moment. Added to that, most of the journalists didn’t know the full scope of the story until later when the details began to emerge.

For Mowry, it hit him when he got home and was able to slow down and think.

“Whenever I think about it, I get teared up,” he said.

For Morning News photographer Pool, he had never been around gun fire outside of a gun range. He moved closer to the shooting that night for photos and for cover, but he is still grappling with that decision.

“I did right by my profession,” by moving closer to document the scene, he said. “I probably did wrong by my family.”

The stress covers more than one day, and staffs begin to get stretched thin. The staff at WFAA had a break when backups come in from other affiliates in the TEGNA company. The Morning News was more challenged. As with every newspaper these days, their staff was smaller than it had once been.

“Everyone is on overtime and overdrive,” said photo editor Hamtil.

Brandon Mowry, Gerry McCarthy, Ashley Landis, Smiley Pool and Ting Shen are all members of the NPPA.