Ochberg Fellowship Program
When I walked out the door of The Jonesboro Sun news room shortly after 1 p.m. on March 24, 1998, I thought I was about as prepared as a reporter could be in a minute's notice.
I had just returned from lunch with two other reporters when information about a shooting at Westside Middle School came across the scanner. Details were sketchy but the anxiety in the voices coming across was very clear. Police were reporting multiple students down at the rural school located just outside of Jonesboro.
With several reporters enroute to the school campus, I grabbed my equipment and headed across the street to St. Bernard's Regional Medical Center. I knew that if students had actually been shot, the hospital would soon be one of the best places to get information. It seemed like it took forever that day to walk up the hill from the parking lot to the emergency room. The sound of sirens filled the air and I raced to get to the emergency room before the first ambulance arrived with the wounded. Although I was the first reporter at the hospital, dozens of people had already gathered outside the emergency room by the time the first ambulance arrived.
My heart pounded as the ambulance crew opened the back doors and began unloading the first victim just as I arrived. I had no idea what I would see when the doors swung open, and as the mother of two young children, I was not certain how much I wanted to see. Looking back, I now realize that in the hustle of it all, my mind had not had time to process what had happened.
From Day 1, my coverage of the shooting focused on the victims and their families.
Just hours after the shooting, a sixth-grade middle school student stood outside the hospital with her family waiting for information on the students and teachers wounded in the deadly ambush. She had seen the youngest of the two shooters, then 11 and 13, run from the school building after tripping the fire alarm. Just after exiting the building with classmates, she watched as 32-year-old teacher Shannon Wright shielded another student in the hail of gunfire, saving the student but fatally wounding the teacher. She also saw her best friend shot in the head as the students ran toward the gym.
The gunshots, the screams, the blood and bullet-ripped flesh. The fact that such a young, innocent schoolgirl now had these horrific images etched in her mind for life disturbed me.
By the end of the week, I had spent countless hours interviewing the wounded students and surviving teacher as well as relatives of the slain teacher and four young girls slaughtered on the school yard.
When the husband of the slain teacher talked about how his two-year-old son wanted his mama to rock him, the interview came to a halt until we could both continue. "Do you have children?" he asked, realizing that the story was affecting me personally.
He obviously sensed that I did. In fact, my daughter was just a few months younger than his son at the time and I was the same age as the wife he had just lost. Because of the long hours, I had really had not had the chance to be with my own children since the shooting but knew that my five-year-old son had learned of the tragedy at preschool. For a few minutes after I returned home from work each night, I would walk in and watch my children sleep before I had to disappear again the next morning.
The father of a young girl critically wounded in the shooting agreed to talk to me but assured me he had very little to say. Once the interview started, he poured out his heart to me — a complete stranger — and I questioned what right I had to even be in his presence when his own daughter was struggling for her life in intensive care. Two days later, I listened as a student who had been injured in the shooting described nightmares of being buried alive.
There were also intense interviews with the surviving teacher, who spent months recovering from her gunshot wound and returned to her classroom the next fall. My mind sometimes revisits a rainy spring morning when we sat in her kitchen drinking coffee and she described how even washing dishes in front of the window made her feel like an easy target for whatever lurked outside. Ironically, when she returned to school the next fall, one of her new students included the younger brother of one of the two shooters.
For the next year, The Jonesboro Sun staff reported on every aspect of the story: the funerals, the memorial service, the recovery of victims, the beginning of a new school year and the adjudication hearing for the two Westside students who changed the lives of so many on that terrible Tuesday. By the time the one-year anniversary of the shooting rolled around and the satellite trucks returned, we had grown tired of intruding in these people's lives even if it was newsworthy.
It wasn't until the one-year anniversary of the Westside tragedy, however, that the impact of the shooting and the story itself really hit me. It was as if concentrating on the story had allowed part of my brain to remain numb. When a second memorial service was held one year after the shooting, I didn't even think to bring a tissue to the service. Soon after it started, however, I doubted if I would be able to actually make it through the service, much less cover it.
The year following the shooting, I found it difficult to concentrate on anything else — even my own family at times. Then, after the one-year anniversary passed, I found myself becoming bored with routine news assignments and my job in general. I had always enjoyed being a journalist — being the first one to know the news, having the opportunity to experience so many things in life that others only read about, but things had changed.
I also began to grow a little angry. During the entire year The Jonesboro Sun staff reported on the shooting and its aftermath, no one ever suggested that counseling could be beneficial for those covering the story. At that time, few in the journalism profession had ever considered the impact that covering critical incidents might have on journalists. I suppose we all knew we could ask for assistance if we needed it, but exposing such a weakness could result in being removed from the story and being passed over for difficult stories in the future.
Why was it that emergency responders such as police and paramedics were offered debriefing sessions and counseling to help them cope with the trauma they had witnessed but those who reported on the stories were not? Was it realistic to believe that a reporter or photographer could stand in a bloodstained school yard where innocent students and teachers had been ambushed and not be personally affected?
Hoping to find some degree of support from others in the profession, I joined the National Federation of Press Women and my state affiliate, Arkansas Press Women, eight months after the shooting. I won state and national awards for my coverage of the tragedy and was asked to speak at the first National Press Women conference I attended.
Since then, I have had the opportunity to speak to several groups of journalists about the tragedy. I soon realized, however, that it was not enough for me to merely rehash the events of March 24, 1998, over and over again.
After nearly 10 years on the news staff, I left The Jonesboro Sun in January to pursue a master's degree in communications at Arkansas State University. For now, I believe that I can contribute more by studying how journalists are affected by covering critical incidents — whether it be a fatal car crash or a mass murder — than I can by reporting the news.
My hope is that I can help educate others in the profession about critical incident reporting and how they may be affected before they find themselves in such an intense situation. I also want to help members of the media who cover such tragedies communicate with others who have had similar experiences so that they know they are not alone. Finally, I hope to see debriefing/counseling sessions routinely made available to reporters and photographers who so often witness tragedy, whether they work for a primetime television program or a weekly newspaper in the community.
Some may not need assistance, but in my opinion those who do should never have to ask.
Your contributions help the Dart Center nurture informed, innovative and ethical news reporting on violence, conflict and tragedy worldwide.
The Dart Center is a project of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.