This edition of our #AskNewser series focuses on coverage of the horrific school shooting at Robb Elementary School in Ulvade, Texas.
On Tuesday May 24, an 18-year-old named Salvador Rolando Ramos fatally shot 19 students, two teachers, and wounded 17 other people at the school. Earlier in the day, he shot his grandmother in the forehead at home, severely wounding her.
We recently caught up with TV news anchors and correspondents who have been on the ground reporting from the South Texas community — CBS Mornings co-anchor Tony Dokoupil, Fox News correspondent Bill Melugin, PBS NewsHour chief correspondent Amna Nawaz, and CNBC correspondent Perry Russom.
Here’s what the quartet had to tell us about their respective experiences down there, and how a journalist goes about balancing the head and their heart when covering such a difficult story like this.
TVNewser: How was covering the Uvalde school shooting different than other mass shootings you have reported on?
Dokoupil: When children die, they leave that much more potential life unlived, so on top of the pain and the grief of any loss, there are the additional what-ifs, which are bigger and deeper because of the many decades that will never come. And when children die in their own school, they’ve lost their future in the very place where they were supposed to find it. I can’t think of anything more cruel.
Melugin: I have covered several mass shootings in my career. Vegas. Charleston, Orlando, Thousand Oaks/Borderline, etc., but this was my first school shooting, and I hope it’s my last.
This was the worst story I’ve ever covered in my career, and it’s not even close. The reality that so many children were essentially trapped in a room and massacred was sickening and jarring, to say the least. When I first arrived on scene, I was at the Uvalde Civic Center, where families had been gathered to wait for news. Many of them were in a private room we could only get a glimpse inside of when the door opened. Their faces were somber and terrified. You could hear a pin drop in the hallway. Every now and then, we would see family members emerge from there crying hysterically. They had clearly just gotten news that would change their lives forever. It was heart wrenching to witness. After that, we spoke to the father of 10-year-old Annabelle Guadalupe Rodriguez, and the grandfather of 10-year-old Elijah Cruz Torres. Both men told us they hadn’t heard from the girls since before the shooting. They were both 4th graders at the school. They were missing, and they were worried sick that they were amongst the dead, but both were holding out hope that perhaps they were amongst the injured at a hospital. They waited, and waited, and waited near the scene for any news. They learned both girls had died in the shooting next day.
This hit me really hard on a personal level, as it brought me back to a moment in my own life. In 2016, my father died very suddenly of a pulmonary embolism. I received a frantic, hyperventilating phone call from my mother telling me he wasn’t breathing and had no heartbeat, but the paramedics were working on him, and she would call me back, then she hung up. I remembered what it was like to pace, pray, and have hope that he would be okay, that the paramedics would fix him, as I waited an agonizing amount of time for any news, only to have the hope crushed when I received notification a short time later he was gone. The parents and loved ones of these children were also holding onto hope that they were okay, and it was excruciating to see that hope slip away from them in the worst way possible.
Nawaz: They’re all horrific in their own way. The shock and grief are different when children are killed. I heard this again and again on the ground – children should bury their parents, not the other way around. I talked to so many kids who did exactly what they’d been drilled to do – they ran, they hid, they stayed quiet. The kids did what they were trained to do, even as some of the adults didn’t. The burden of safety is on the kids now – that’s a new, disturbing lens for our reporting.
Russom: One thing that cannot be understated is how intertwined Uvalde is. It’s a small city of 16,000 where everyone seems to know everyone. The day state investigators blamed Uvalde Police Pete Arredondo for the delayed response, and we spoke with Ruben Mata Montemayor who was crying at the memorial of his great-granddaughter Alexandria Rubio. Montemayor said he personally knew Arredondo and couldn’t comprehend why police waited in the hallway for so long. Montemayor voted for Arredondo to join the Uvalde City Council weeks prior, and he said that it is a vote he would never make again.
Do you have a unique story or an experience from your time down there that you didn’t have the chance to report/talk about on-air?
Dokoupil: I saw a family, early in the aftermath of the shooting, walk over to the front of the school, past the police lines, and kneel by the white crosses someone had made, each one for a victim, most of them for children. Two uniformed officers stood in front of the couple, allowing them to cry and grieve and mourn in peace, shielding them from the view of the world’s cameras. Protecting them, in other words, after our country’s collective failure (once again) to protect their children.
Nawaz: We stood at the town square memorial for a while one night. Watching child after child lay flowers, scribble a note on each cross, stand and cry as it set in that they’d never see their friend again…it was a scene I’ll never forget. One wrote on Alithia Ramirez’s memorial, “we were happy together.”
Russom: I’ll never forget a 3rd grader we met named Aubriella who had just visited the memorial with her mother when they walked by our car. Aubriella was hiding alone in a school bathroom when the gunman started shooting. I clearly remember her with a red ribbon in her hair and a stuffed animal between her arms as she told us her story. She said, “I was crying in my hands – just don’t make no noise” and she was hiding for what felt like hours. She saw the gunman’s shoes. The first-time police checked the bathroom, Aubriella said she was unsure who they were so she stayed quiet but the second time she saw a police badge and came out.
Internet and cell service in Uvalde was also limited but the library in town, El Progreso Memorial Library, and its director, Mendell Morgan, extended the library’s hours so reporters could use the Wi-Fi. He also placed chairs and desks in the lobby so we could continue to work after they closed. Small signs of gratitude like that kept us going.
You’re a journalist first and foremost who’s there to do a job, but you’re also a human being. How do you balance the two—your head and your heart—when covering a story like this?
Dokoupil: You don’t at first. The heart is the story. The hearts that stopped. The hearts that go on. The emotion. Only later does the coverage turn to how we, as a country, balance the right to life and the pursuit of happiness against the liberty of gun ownership. What’s the cost in life in pursuit that liberty? How much sadness (or armed security are we willing to bear?
Melugin: Balancing the head and the heart was a challenge during this coverage. There were a lot of questions starting to circulate about why it was taking so long for families to be notified. Fairly quickly into our coverage, I started hearing from multiple law enforcement sources involved with the investigation that it was one of the most awful crime scenes imaginable and that many of the children had been shot up so badly that they were unrecognizable, and family members were having to provide DNA samples in order to confirm identifications, which was slowing down the process. I decided not to report this, as it just seemed too grisly to me when you are talking about 8, 9, 10-year-olds, even though it was likely newsworthy. What I did end up reporting, was that many of the first responders were struggling mentally with what they witnessed inside of the school. Some things are just better left unsaid.
Nawaz: The facts don’t unfold in a vacuum. My daughters are in elementary school. I can’t look at these children and not see my own. There is a value to dispassionate, distanced reporting, but there is also the very real fact that these are horrendous, uniquely American events that should not be happening. Journalists know that too.
Russom: It’s important to not deny emotions and if you feel something, feel it. Standing behind a mic doesn’t absolve us from empathizing. If you need a moment, take a moment, and regroup – then realize there are dozens and dozens of more stories that need to be told. When covering disasters, whether manmade or natural, there will be certain faces and stories tattooed in your memory. Sharing their stories over and over has helped me. Everyone experiences trauma in different ways – some want to talk about what happened and others do not but it’s important to respect those decisions with compassion.