Wick Communications

The day the world stopped

In journalism, Uncategorized on February 18, 2011 at 9:09 am

Tucson Daily Star Managing Editor Teri Hayt had just finished getting her hair done when the news came. It was a Saturday morning in January. A fellow newspaper editor was calling to say he heard U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had been shot.

She returned the macabre favor, calling Poli Corella. The newspaper’s metro editor was with his young daughter at a JC Penny in Tucson. “I was learning the difference between skinny jeans and jeggings,” he said with a chuckle many weeks later.

That is how big news begins. It shatters the day. It renders irrelevant the best-laid plans. It leaves family considerations in the dust and it can bring a newspaper’s staff together – or tear it apart.

Hayt and Corella led a webinar this week at the behest of Suburban Newspapers of America and Associated Press Managing Editors. They gave a rundown of how the events of the day affected their town, their newspaper, their reporters. It was pretty fascinating.

Hayt says the shootings came at exactly the wrong time, as big news seemingly always does. It was a Saturday morning when few staffers were around. As it happened, the newsroom was being painted and new carpeting being installed. In addition, the shootings took place in a part of town that is notorious for spotty cell phone coverage, she said…

Suffice to say, the staff was not fully prepared for the events of Jan. 8.

“We had a disaster plan,” Hayt said, “but it was so old it was dusty and we hadn’t looked at it in a really long time.”

Hayt emphasized that events like those in Tucson impact newspaper staff in the same way they affect the rest of the community. We are only human; expect human reactions. She said she took pains to make sure her staff had resources – including anonymous counseling if it was needed.

“After the adrenaline stops, people in your newsroom are going to start to grieve,” she said.

Hayt and Corella were honest about their mistakes. They spent some time discussing the fact that they repeated the incorrect statement that Giffords had died as a result of her injuries. They explained that their source was NPR, a credible outfit with a reporter on the scene. At least one Wick newspaper also repeated those reports.

“I always try to say get it right before getting it first,” Corella said. “As an editor, it’s natural to feel frustrated that your own people aren’t getting the information others are getting.”

So for 15 minutes or so, online readers of the Star read that the congresswoman had died. The pair said they corrected that information after a call from C.J. Karamargin, a former Star staffer who now works for the congresswoman.

It was clear the newspaper staff regrets the error.

One surreal aspect of such news events is that the national media descends. The newspaper didn’t have much time to cooperate with other news organizations, Hayt said. Senior staff made an early decision that their reporters wouldn’t do stand-up interviews on TV or provide inside information to national news reporters who were parachuting into the scene.

Hayt and Corella were, however, cognizant of the needs of readers – and the fact that the Star wasn’t leaving town when things returned to a new normal. The stories had local angles. They treated all the victims equally and with dignity. And the newspaper avoided terms like “healing” and “moving on.”

“The people in Tucson may be healing, but they are not moving on,” Hayt said. “To use the word ‘healing’ on the day someone is burying their loved one is probably not the best thing to do. We will be dealing with this for years to come.”

See the next post for a list of tips from the folks at the Daily Star.

Clay

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