Saturday’s shooting in Tucson was something of a marathon challenge for The Arizona Republic’s staff of 310. For starters, the Phoenix-based paper had no bureau in Tucson. Then there was the confusion over whether Congresswoman Giffords had survived the attack, the task of tracking down everything they could on her suspected shooter, and trying to do it all more quickly, and more accurately, than a rushing horde of national outlets and the usual hometown competition. Republic editor and vice president Randy Lovely spoke to CJR assistant editor Joel Meares about the task of breaking news that seemed to be constantly changing and, in the days that followed, sensitively directing his paper’s coverage of one of the biggest and most contentious stories to hit his state in years. This is an edited transcript of that conversation.
What was the newsroom like when news broke on Saturday that the Congresswoman and others had been shot?
I have to admit it was a little chaotic. Obviously, Saturday staffing is not at its height but the good thing was that the phone tree we have in place for disaster coverage kicked in and everybody started calling through the chain of their responsibilities. We had reporters and editors quickly coming into the newsroom and at the same time reporters and photographers who immediately were on the road headed toward Tucson. We do not have a bureau in Tucson so we had to have people deployed as quickly as we could.
That must have presented a challenge—no bureau in the city.
We’ve had bureaus at the border but not in Tucson. Part of the problem is that until a couple of years ago Gannett owned The Tucson Citizen, so we always had a collaborative relationship with them. But we have worked very closely with the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson, and as of Monday we set up a temporary bureau in their building so that we can keep staff down there for the foreseeable future. They set aside some space for us—obviously, a little away from their newsroom because we’re still competitors of sorts. At least until we get a better feel for how this story settles in, and until we have a better sense of the congresswoman’s condition develops, we wanted to make sure we had a steady presence down there.
It’s always an interesting challenge when you’re covering a market that is considered to be local but really isn’t local. The logistics of having to deal with hotel rooms and getting equipment down to people, and even getting clothes down to people who left in such a hurry that they didn’t think about the fact that they might be gone for a few days. It just adds another wrinkle to the whole thing.
What does working very closely with the Daily Star entail? Are you sharing content?
Not really. We have shared information about deployment, about where people are, and tips, but not actual finished product.
There was a lot of confusion and misreporting when the news of the shooting first broke—outlets reporting that the congresswoman had been killed, for example. Where was your team getting your information from and how do you handle the balance between breaking news and ensuring it’s accurate in a situation like this?
I don’t want to stand in judgment, because I know the kind of frenzy that was going on within our newsroom. As we were trying to get ourselves up and running, and getting people in the right places, and making all the right phone calls, we were also monitoring the wires and monitoring national broadcasters and the like. I can understand the frenzy of it all and I can understand the competitiveness that drives us all. But at the same time it was a little disconcerting to see statements being made without knowing where that confirmation was coming from. For us, there were contradictions that we were seeing, which caused us to be even more hesitant. We were trying to be as fast as we could be but as accurate as we could be.
For example, we very quickly found the suspect’s Myspace page before it was taken down. We pulled everything that we could off of it because we knew at some point that it would be taken down. But at the same time, there were questions about the spelling of his last name—AP had one version, we had a different version. We called AP and talked about where they had gotten their spelling; they deferred to our spelling of the name. Then there were still questions about whether the photos on that Myspace page were of Loughner or of someone else—and we know what CNN ran into in terms of airing the wrong photo. It took us several hours of having information but not feeling comfortable that we had the appropriate confirmation to use that information. I understand the rush to try and get the story, but at the same time I think it was a cautionary experience for all of us to remember those core practices and standards in moments of chaos.
What impact does social networking, and the rush to break news on technologies like Twitter, have on breaking news reporting of this kind? Does it exacerbate the competitiveness and the problem of inaccuracies?
I see it from two perspectives. Just as the invention of television and the twenty-four-hour cable cycle elevated the rapid response mentality, this has added to that. There’s an expectation of the public’s appetite for information very quickly. It has its push and pull.
At the same time I also think the public, to a certain degree, has a greater understanding that information is being reported in real-time. And that that information can change. Our biggest challenge as an industry in trying to sort all this out is: how do we deliver that message in a way that readers and users understand this is what we know at this moment? And when we change it, we need to be transparent in the fact that we are correcting information that we had earlier, that we now know is not 100 percent accurate. I think because the public has such an insatiable demand for instant news, they also have a willingness to understand that we may not be 100 percent. But we’ve got to figure out how we work in that environment in a better way than we have up to this point. We have to set protocols for ourselves about how we correct information in real-time as much as we report information in real-time.
How easy or difficult was it to get information as the news was unfolding from the sheriff’s office, from the hospital, and from witnesses on the scene?
Information from witnesses on the scene was pretty easy to get. But obviously, as we know now, their versions differ. In that moment, with adrenaline rushing and all of the kind of heightened reality, we’re still not 100 percent sure what happened. For example, there are stories about a woman knocking a clip out of Loughner’s hand and then two men tackling him. The woman herself says he was already tackled on the ground and reaching for the clip out of his pocket when she grabbed it. The sequencing of events gets very distorted because of that heightened reality and the adrenaline flow.
We are still a little frustrated because the Pima Country Sheriff’s office still hasn’t given us a list of all of the injured. We still have six names that we have not been able to track down in terms of the people who were injured. We’ve been aggressively working that from the legal standpoint.
The University of Arizona Medical Center has been extraordinarily helpful, especially given the fact that they have HIPA laws that they could stand behind to some degree. Their daily updates have been incredibly helpful. And they were the ones who calmed the misinformation on Saturday when they finally released a statement saying that the congresswoman was in surgery and that she was indeed alive. I think they were helpful in trying to really get control of the information.
Where do you even begin to investigate a shooter once you have his name?
We ran the traps. We ran a Lexis search to get an address—or addresses, if you will; many people have that name and various spellings of that name. You try to narrow that down knowing that most likely he did live in Tucson. We then did the social media stuff, and that’s how we came up with the Myspace page very early in the reporting.
Once you do that you start coming up with various pieces of information. For example, one of the pieces of misinformation that we didn’t publish was that early on we thought Loughner was a student at Arizona State University. We very quickly called the president of the university and asked if he would help to confirm that information and provide any information about him as a student. That turned out not to be true.
You just start to run the traps on every thread. Part of his Myspace page talked about him being a student at Pima Community College, so we started tracing that down. It really unveiled some interesting information, like the fact that he was banned from the school this fall. You run every thread you can.
Did you have an advantage confirming the information you were finding given that you’re a local outlet with established sources in the city and the state?
I think so. I hope that our source-building and our connections help us, and we probably know how to get from point A to point B a little more quickly than a national media source coming in here. But Phoenix is the fifth largest city in the country and is a very competitive media market. A lot of the other media outlets in this market had similar advantages. It’s been an interesting journalistic observation, though, that The New York Times and other entities have done some great work, as is indicative of their history of doing so. But I am also very proud of the work the journalists are doing here at the Republic.
What have you made of the national coverage?
Once we got out of that initial intense situation of just trying to figure out what had happened and who was involved, yes. Since then, in publications starting on Sunday morning and in what I’ve seen on websites, there has been some very nice work being done by a lot of different media outlets looking at issues from metal health to gun rights and trying to better understand the medical situation the congresswoman faces as she recovers.
When did you start to see signs that this debate about rhetoric would be the first big national discussion to come out of the shooting?
You started seeing that on Saturday. By late afternoon, early evening Arizona time, you were starting to hear people making reference to the difficult re-election battle that Gabrielle Giffords has had against her Tea Party opponent. You started hearing comments about Sarah Palin’s website and that Giffords’s district had had the crosshairs over it. You started to hear people conjecturing about what, if any, role the political debate had played in this.
But at the same time you had people saying, ‘We don’t know enough yet,’ and, ‘We don’t know what his motives were.’ At least those were the conversations we were having in our newsroom. He’s a twenty-two year-old kid, how politically involved could he be? Is this based on some political agenda or is he just unstable mentally? You did start hearing people having that debate very early in the process.
How did you decide to handle that angle, given that the debate is a pretty national thing?
We’ve come at it in a number of different ways. In Sunday’s newspaper we did have a story about the fact that the rhetoric was starting to ratchet up and that Arizona, for multiple reasons, has been in a contentious place. We’ve had immigration issues, but we also had huge issues with the congressional town halls last summer related to health care reform. Some of our representatives had pretty vocal protests at those. So we did a story just on the fact that the political debate in Arizona is pretty intense right now—whether or not that was involved we didn’t know, but it was being talked about. Then we did a story on Arizona’s public image. The unfortunate reality is that we’ve been in the spotlight since our anti-immigration bill was signed by the governor last April. This ends up being just another kind of negative image of Arizona, and what does that mean for us? We then had another story in today’s paper about what we were starting to see Monday—how the interesting debate about the role of rhetoric and finger-pointing has turned into a lot of rhetoric and finger-pointing.
We’ve tried to come at it in a couple of different ways realizing none us know what drove this event. But we certainly want to capture what people are talking about.
So you’ve approached it as an observer but stayed out of the fray?
From an editorial standpoint, we ran an editorial on Sunday arguing that the most important thing at this point was for people come together. And that wasn’t a criticism of political debate, and we certainly didn’t imply that the political debate played any role in this. With our editorial pages we’ve tried to take a very cautionary tone in terms of asking people not to assume or read into anything until we know more. On the news side we’ve tried to capture what the debate is, what’s being said; reflecting reality, which is what we do on the news side.
A lot of the discussion has focused on Arizona as a kind of microcosm of a lot of what is supposedly wrong with the tone of debate. Do you think the portrayal of the state in the national media has been fair?
Yes and no. I think it’s always fair for anyone to step back and look at everything that’s transpired in Arizona and try to represent that to their readers. Where sometimes they get a little distorted is where they engage stereotypes. I’ve read things about “the wild west.” Yes, we’re in the western part of the United States, but no, there aren’t cowboys and Indians. That’s when I think readers who may not ever come to Arizona can get distorted perception of the state. As I said, we’re the fifth largest city—we’re not as wild west as it may seem.
Still, there are cultural differences between this part of the country and other parts of the country. And I’ve lived in different regions. I think the challenge is to try and understand and then to represent those cultural differences in a fair and accurate way. Unfortunately, when a reporter who may not have that experience comes into a situation they may not have that perspective.
How do the issues you need to report on as a state or local paper differ from the focus of a national outlet? Do you have a responsibility to cover certain stories they may not?
I haven’t followed everything that everyone’s done, and I don’t want to sleight the work that’s being done. But a couple of things were important to us. Beyond telling the story of Gabrielle Giffords and Jared Loughner, we put a lot of time and energy into helping people know and understand those other individuals who were injured or killed. Those were local people, those were Arizona residents. To us, all of those victims are equally important because they are residents of our state. And while they may not have had as high a profile as others, it’s been important for us to get as much information as we can to help paint a picture of who they were and what their lives were like. That’s probably the most notable difference.
We also had a story over the weekend on the city of Tucson, and what it does to a city when your community gets turned upside down. Those are the things that are important to us and our readers that may not play out on a national level.