I’ve been on the news desk for almost 10 years at CBS4 News.  By now it’s routine and instinctive on how to cover big breaking news events.   First it’s the adrenaline and the rush of semi-controlled chaos as I work to confirm information, move news crews, keep the newsroom informed of every development, etc.  Eventually my silent thoughts of “is this really happening?” creep in and are later followed up by the emotions and thoughts everyone at home watching the event unfold have had.

There are phrases, “like officer down” or “people trapped in the fire”, that I hear over the scanners where my first actions are to shout out to the newsroom what I’ve heard while simultaneously moving news crew.  The next action is to make calls to confirm information, or to at least get a hint of what’s happening.  Other times before moving crews it’s best to listen to the scanner and to make the calls first.  After some information is gathered decisions on coverage are made.  This is why I and others on the news desk need to know at all times where the photographers and reporters are.

I was sitting in the hot seat (the seat on the desk surrounded by the scanners) shortly after 3 p.m. when I heard, “I need an ambulance at Deer Creek Middle School for a GSW!” (gunshot wound)  I didn’t need to know more.  I stood and started to shout there’s been a shooting at a school.  A coworker reading an email from a parent of a student at the school shouted about the shooting almost in unison with me.

The entire newsroom erupted into shouts and movement.  I started calling for certain photographers and reporters through the overhead speaker to come to the newsroom.  In my head I already had three crews and the helicopter assigned to go to the scene.  My coworker on the desk started making the calls to the police, sheriff and school district.

As crews left the station, managers, producers and I laid out our first of many coverage plans.  Reporters and photographers who were already out in live trucks getting ready to do their assigned stories were split apart as I needed the live trucks to go to the scene.  The reporters either went to the scene too or came back to the station. 

We asked some photographers to head to hospitals close to the school.  We didn’t know victim numbers or conditions, but knew if anyone were hurt, we needed to be at the hospitals as well.  With HIPAA we aren’t allowed information on patients unless the patient or guardian agrees for that information to be released.  However, in cases that can be classified as mass casualty events, such as a school shooting, we can request numbers and range of conditions without getting any other specifics.

My coworker continued to gather information from various dispatches or Public Information Officers.   He called all the area hospitals to see if they’d been put on alert and to request any information available.  Other coworkers, producers, writers and interns, were making various calls or answering phones all in a group effort to get the most accurate information so we could relay it to the community.

Producers and anchors got the information out to the public with cut-ins during regular programming.  I relayed information on Twitter and facebook.  Twitter has become a very valuable tool for me and for the station.   It’s not unusual for me to Tweet information as I’m hearing it and before we even decide if we’re sending a crew or not.  In this case covering the story took precedent.  I worked the desk for at least 15 minutes before my first Tweet on my account as well as the station’s account. 

I listened to the scanners.  I heard the suspect was being held by staff and/or faculty.  The first confirmed reports claimed only one student had been shot.  Soon I clearly heard a deputy call for another ambulance as a second student was found with a gunshot wound.  I shouted this out and started paging crews who were on the way to the scene with this new unconfirmed information.  My coworker began calling and paging the PIOs again.

As the situation developed and it was clear the suspect was in custody and only two students were injured, producers and managers began hashing out specific angles the reporters would take like:
  • the nuts and bolts of what happened
  • student and parent reactions
  • highlighting the heroes
  • injured student conditions
It was my job to make sure those assignments could be done, that crews were in the right spot, and that there were enough live trucks and editing equipment in the field for the crews to work.  My coworker continued working the phones getting reporters information and finding interviews for them.

The crews in the field relayed information to us and kept in touch with one another to know what each had in sound and video.  We all stayed flexible because in these cases plans are very fluid and can be changed at a second’s notice depending on developments.  Even reporters and photographers who weren’t originally assigned to work the shooting, were checking in with me regularly to see if they were needed.  Eventually several of those crews were assigned stories and asked to stay for a double shift.

This wasn’t my first school shooting that I’ve helped cover.  No, I wasn’t here for Columbine and for this I am honestly thankful.  Most of my coworkers covered Columbine though and some of them made comments as they emotionally and mentally dealt with another school shooting.  I understood this as I was here for the shooting at Platte Canyon High School in September 2006.  It’s not something I or any of us ever want to cover, but we have no choice when such tragedy happens. 

We have to deal with our emotions as we try to work and be professional.  For me, and I imagine for many others, there’s an emotional shield, or barrier, that I put in place.  I know I’m going to talk with grieving members or the community, friends and/or family over the phone.  Often people watching the reports call the station just to have someone to talk to while they cry.  Others call in anger, anger at us in the media for our coverage decisions, or angry at the situation.  I have to be able to handle all of this emotion being thrown at me, while handing my own emotions, so I can do my job.

My job is on a desk.  I’m not in the field like half of my coworkers.  I often wonder how they get through it and imagine their shields as being stronger and thicker than my own.  I know many don’t like the media.  I know there is much anger, distrust and distaste for the media.  All we can do are our individual jobs to cover the news ethically with dignity and integrity.  Then we deal with everything else.