Re­port­ing in the Face of Hor­ror

The Washington Post Sunday - - Outlook -

The killings at Vir­ginia Tech seized the Post news­room last week. Peo­ple in ev­ery sec­tion, from Metro to Kid­sPost to the edi­to­rial pages to Sports, turned on a dime.

Sev­eral edi­tors heard Mon­day morn­ing on CNN that two peo­ple had been shot. The Con­tin­u­ous News Desk con­firmed that from the Vir­ginia Tech Web site and sent three para­graphs that were posted at 10:28 a.m. on wash­ing­ton­post.com. Within a few hours, 75 re­porters were on the story.

Mon­day was a scram­ble for facts. The sto­ries were di­vided into two main themes — the hu­man tragedy and how au­thor­i­ties han­dled it. The Vir­ginia Desk was the hub — and seemed an oa­sis of calm. The more hor­ri­ble the story, the calmer edi­tors need to be.

Vir­ginia Ed­i­tor Mike Semel dis­patched the first re­porters to Blacks­burg about 11 a.m. They were fol­lowed by six more Metro re­porters, two Style re­porters, two pho­tog­ra­phers and a graphic artist. It was too windy to take a char­tered plane. Semel in­ter­rupted the noon news meet­ing to say the death toll was ris­ing. By about 2 p.m., vet­eran po­lice re­porter Sari Hor­witz had put the toll at 32. “My edi­tors and I were so shocked. We couldn’t be­lieve it was true. I called my sources back and grilled them be­fore we put it on the Web.”

Semel over­saw a cell­phone con­fer­ence call to pin down du­ties as the re­porters were driv­ing. “One of the hard­est, most im­por­tant, things we had to do was make sure there was no over­lap among the sto­ries we were do­ing . . . to keep each story tightly fo­cused.” Top edi­tors met fre­quently, even af­ter mid­night.

Wash­ing­ton­post.com edi­tors sent two videog­ra­phers and a Web ed­i­tor to write and do video and au­dio feeds, photo gal­leries, pod­casts, and live dis­cus­sions. On Tues­day, they started a blog for break­ing news, said Liz Spayd, Web site ed­i­tor. Wash­ing­ton Post Ra­dio broad­cast lit­tle but that story for two days.

On Mon­day re­porters did much of their work by phone, call­ing of­fices, hos­pi­tals, dorm rooms and cell­phones, us­ing the on­line Vir­ginia Tech stu­dent and staff di­rec­tory. Long­time re­porter Michael Ruane said this kind of re­port­ing is re­flex­ive, “a pri­mor­dial act. You don’t want to find the kid in the dorm across the street or the hall. You want to find the kid who was in the room with him.”

Vir­ginia re­porter Tom Jack­man was on re­write with 60 “feeds” from 25 to 30 re­porters for the main story. “They were mainly wit­ness ac­counts from out­side Nor­ris Hall,” he said. “Then [re­porter] Jose An­to­nio Var­gas reached a kid who’d been inside one of the class­rooms. That was the first real idea we had of what the ter­ror was like, and who the shooter might’ve been — young, Asian, non­ver­bal, two guns.” Var­gas used Face­book.com to find eye­wit­ness Trey Perkins.

One reader was up­set that re­porters called vic­tims’ rel­a­tives, say­ing, “It is . . . not some­thing one would ex­pect from a great news­pa­per.” The vast ma­jor­ity of the calls were made to rel­a­tives who al­ready knew of their loss. Good re­porters don’t bad­ger the be­reaved, but many peo­ple want to talk about their loved ones. Colum­nist Marc Fisher said, “Sto­ries pack far more power and more mean­ing when we spurn the of­fi­cial lan­guage of jour­nal­ism and in­stead let peo­ple’s emo­tions cry out.”

De­ci­sions about how to dis­play the news and get­ting the pa­per out were huge chal­lenges. Space was ex­panded in the A sec­tion and zon­ing for dif­fer­ent ju­ris­dic­tions was can­celed all week. Ev­ery­thing took a back seat to the tragedy.

For Wed­nes­day’s pa­per, there was much dis­cus­sion about how to play Page 1 sto­ries. Did putting the story about the gun­man at the top of Page 1 make him look like a celebrity? What kind of Page 1 pres­ence should the vic­tims have? A promo to a Food sec­tion story was dropped as friv­o­lous.

Of­ten, news­pa­pers do a great job the first day or so, and then cov­er­age dwin­dles. It was the op­po­site at The Post. Wed­nes­day’s pa­per brought Ian Shapira and Ruane’s fine profile of the shooter and touch­ing pro­files of the vic­tims.

Edi­tors longed for a re­con­struc­tion like the one As­so­ci­ate Ed­i­tor David Maraniss had done af­ter Sept. 11, 2001, but he was on book leave and con­va­lesc­ing af­ter ma­jor hip surgery. Ex­ec­u­tive Ed­i­tor Len Downie, who hov­ered low over ev­ery­thing all week, called him. Maraniss wanted in.

His mas­ter­ful Thurs­day story com­bined the mun­dane and the hor­rific in a seam­less, de­tailed nar­ra­tive. Tak­ing feeds from re­porters and in­ter­view­ing at length the four peo­ple whom the story cen­tered on, Maraniss wrote a 138-inch story. He awoke at 5 a.m. Wed­nes­day, hav­ing writ­ten in his sleep, which he says he of­ten does. He wrote the first four para­graphs at home, hit the news­room at 6:30 and wrote the last third of the piece first. Then he went back to write the be­gin­ning. He set a timer to go off ev­ery 40 min­utes to re­mind him of his doc­tor’s or­ders to walk around.

His main goal: “I don’t want to have a point where the reader stops. I want to get them to the last line.” Read­ers’ e-mail showed he suc­ceeded. Joyce Korn­blatt of Syd­ney, Aus­tralia, wrote: “I can’t say ex­actly why, but read­ing it has given me some peace — per­haps be­cause of the rev­er­ence for the or­di­nary that your in­fin­itely sad ar­ti­cle em­anates.” Deb­o­rah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at om­buds­man@ wash­post.com.

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