By the time the Aurora theater and Arapaho High School shootings struck my city of Denver, I no longer accepted assignments to cover mass murder. A churn in my stomach stopped me.
I covered my first mass shooting as a photojournalist in 1991: Two suburban Florida families were executed on the same night, likely by the same killers. I covered extrajudicial executions, drug gang slayings and police raids on slums in Brazil. I scrambled to two mass shootings on the same day at separate Colorado churches and aimed my lens at the physical and emotional devastation of their communities. By far the most affecting was the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School. I was on the scene with my cameras as it happened and on that unstoppable story for two years after.
Then at 9:27a.m. on May 25, 2018, I, my wife and all the other parents of my stepson’s Noblesville, Indiana, middle school received the following text message:
“Shots have been reported at West middle school. Reports of one injury. Police are onsite and school is on lockdown. Stand by for more info.”
I grabbed my camera bag because I sensed that the scuffed and worn camera gear would get me closer to my stepson. To the first responders I would look like I belonged at the scene. I could scan through my longest lens for Callum’s face.
Empathy is a key to successful photojournalism. I had imagined being in this situation every time I photographed someone actually in it. I needed to put myself in in the shoes of the subject before I could know what fleeting emotion, glance, expression or light to capture. This time I wasn’t empathizing. I was living it. To not know if a child you love is safe, to not know where he is, to not be able to soothe or protect him is terrifying.
I photographed as I searched, out of recognition of the dizzying fear and shock on the faces in front of me. The earth was being torn out from under us. I was photographing my reflection.
I finally saw Callum with my own eyes three hours later, through the tinted window of an evacuation school bus. I photographed him scrambling past military-armed police to enter the nearby high school gym. His mother waited there with hundreds of other stunned parents.
Through all of this I had not thought as a journalist. The images I made were loose frames captured reflexively rather than attentively. I hadn’t collected IDs of the subjects. After I saw Callum with my own eyes, 30 years of journalism experience turned on. I was angry, shocked, disgusted and I wanted to fight back. The tool I had for that was the photographs I had made.
My first call was to the New York Times, the client for whom I had photographed almost a thousand other stories. The email response was polite, expressed condolences that it had happened at my kid’s school, and declined the images. For the Times this would stay a short story on the web with a wire photo. That was all.
Journalists use the fatality statistics of mass shootings as shorthand for scale. This number is how we have come to compare events like Parkland, Florida, or the Pulse nightclub shootings with this one at Noblesville West Middle School. I stared at that e-mail, angry and incredulous. Mass shootings are now so commonplace that a high fatality count is the measure of newsworthiness. This shooting, according to CNN, was the 23rd such event of 2018, happening in the 21st week.
I knew from living within this story that the more than 5,000 people directly connected to this school would never be the same. One 13-year-old girl was shot seven times, in the face, neck and torso, before her science teacher took three bullets tackling the armed classmate. Both are alive and recovering. The child shooter awaits trial as a juvenile on attempted murder and battery charges.
Fatalities are unquestionably horrible. Those of us on the periphery can only imagine the emotions and pain suffered by the families at the center of the act. But being both the subject of this story and a journalist covering it made strikingly clear how our focus on the fatalities alone unwittingly leads to the ignoring of the larger emotional damage.
I observed this after Columbine, where the focus of reporting was first on the shooters and their parents, then the 13 fatalities and their families. The 24 injured students and their difficult recoveries received far less attention, and the city of Littleton was only covered as a hotbed of suburban dysfunction. Already by the next morning those of us covering the story could feel a palpable chill from the community for doing a job we considered important: to understand the tragedy, its causes and consequences.
At the time, this chill seemed to me to be solely the result of a few journalists behaving insensitively and aggressively in pursuit of the scoop. Now, as a member of a community that has also been forcibly ejected from its sense of self, I better understand the chill that borders on hostility. We do not want our friends and neighbors exploited for ratings or clicks. We want you to understand that the thousands of seemingly unaffected people on the edge of the story are also the walking wounded.
In 2016 and 2017, the FBI reports, there were 50 active shooter incidents in 21 states. In those events 221 people were killed and 722 injured — more than three times as many injuries as fatalities. To add the wider affected communities would raise those numbers to the hundreds of thousands, yet we scale shooter events by the fatalities as we add to the ever-growing list.
I was angry that an event I was so closely living would get limited national coverage. But my awareness of the role journalism likely plays in how these events are inspired also shortened my breath that day. Had my diligent, empathetic and careful coverage of Columbine for the New York Times contributed directly to a shooter opening fire in my own stepson’s school? Sue Klebold, mother of one of the Columbine shooters, argues that this may be the case.
Five days later the New York Times published a story on the “seemingly contagious” nature of school shootings. It features a disturbing slideshow of images — many of them my own — identifying the visual vernacular of mass shooting photojournalism. “The phenomenon (of school shootings) is feeding on itself,” psychologist Peter Langman told the Times. “It’s gaining momentum, and the more there are, the more there will be.” In one paper, Langman mapped the influence of the Columbine shooters through a cascade of the style trappings they inspired in others. “We don’t do this intentionally, but we glorify shooters by showing the damage they’ve done — all the crying, all the empty seats — and for people with rage that has a particular appeal for them,” Klebold also told the Times.
I had heard her observations several times before, and as I scrambled to get my pictures into publication on May 25 her sentiment gnawed at my gut. Was my son’s school paying the price for my own coverage of Columbine 19 years earlier? What if the work good photojournalists do to show the human toll of these events was fueling disturbed young men to repeat the Columbine shooters’ actions and bring glory to their own suicides? For decades we avoided coverage of suicide due to its correlated contagiousness.
Our coverage has led, positively, to such movements as Never Again MSD and has fueled and informed political and social debate for more than 20 years. We now better understand what drives these events, who may be likely to aim a firearm at classmates, coworkers or the other, and how to better react as a community when they do. Noblesville West Middle School and the community surrounding it handled the event and its aftermath with far more expertise than any other shooting I covered.
Despite those better outcomes, a debate over a fundamental change in news coverage of mass shootings appears in the pages of journalism professional publications since at least 2015: Should we publish the names and faces of shooters? Criminologists have argued for a decade longer that this contributes to a contagion effect, and the data they use to support the argument are compelling.
Prior to reading these arguments I, like many of my journalism contemporaries, would argue that the name is fact No. 1 in reporting. “Who” starts that familiar list of interrogatives. When two decades of my photojournalism students turned in photographs without IDs, I would flunk their assignment for failure to get the most basic fact. USA Today argued the same in a 2015 editorial. While acknowledging the contagion effect and the need for compassion for victims and their families, that editorial most strenuously argued that withholding names might lead to censorship or a violation of the public’s right to know.
However, these arguments put journalistic dogma before the thoughtful pursuit of professionalism. There are many precedents for journalists withholding unnecessary information, from FDR’s wheelchair to our decades-long avoidance of suicide and bomb threat coverage. We often use our journalistic dogma for good — to argue a first amendment right, to limit undue influence from the outside, to lend voice to the voiceless. But like all dogma, ours is also used as a lazy excuse for not thinking hard enough about what we do. We work too often on autopilot, arriving at the events, collecting facts, quotes and images, and publishing them simply because that’s what we’ve always done. The profession of journalism is far too important to not have constant reevaluation of practice, motive and ethics.
Other researchers argue that the media plays far less of a role than before or that campaigns like #NoNotoriety oversimplify a complex issue. But as a profession, we need to do better.
Professional journalists show their values through their actions. Ignoring a data-supported public concern on behalf of an aphorism like “the public right to know” appears to put our internal needs or wishes above those of the public we serve. Though anyone with web access may find a shooter’s name, it wouldn’t be us delivering it, repeating it and adding to his fame.
Journalism is far from easy. It relies on an instinct about when to put a neighbor’s pain on display for a greater cause of public safety or to fuel the fight against injustice or terror. The practice of journalism must constantly be rethought, however, balancing tradition and experience with the constant evolution of the world we cover.
A few days after the shooting, my wife and I found ourselves at a school lunchroom table with other parents. None of their children had been in the room and all were physically safe. Yet tears streamed down the faces of sleepless, stressed, unable-to-work parents lucky enough to mourn only the loss of a sense of security. They had lived too close of a call to quickly step back into their prior lives. We were all enormously fortunate — we didn’t have to bury anyone, sit beside a hospital bed for weeks, help a child through the intense counseling required after witnessing a horror.
We will recover, but we want you to understand that we exist.
This article originally appeared in the Poynter Institute’s daily newsletter on October 18, 2018.