The Media Today

The Gilroy shooting is a reminder of the media’s swarm problem

July 30, 2019

On Sunday, in Gilroy, California, a city of around 58,000 people southeast of San Jose, a gunman cut through the fence of a local garlic festival and opened fire. The shooter killed Trevor Irby, who was 25 years old; Keyla Salazar, who was 13; and Stephen Romero, who was six, before police shot him dead. Officers responded within a minute, but—as so often happens in America—incalculable damage had been done. Last night, hundreds of people gathered outside Gilroy’s city hall to commemorate the victims. Roland Velasco, the city’s mayor, addressed the crowd. “We cannot let the bastard that did this tear us down,” he said.

In the aftermath of such horrors, the media’s behavior has become grimly familiar: national news outlets who would not normally cover a place descend on it en masse to document the horror. That can be overwhelming for grieving communities and the journalists who call them home. Following the Gilroy shooting, Robert Eliason, a photographer for local outlets including the Gilroy Dispatch, went to cover a press briefing in a college parking lot. “It was like walking on to a movie set,” Eliason wrote on Facebook afterward. “There were media vans everywhere, video cameras on tripods, bright lighting panels, reporters talking to victims, reporters checking in to their home stations, reporters talking to no-one and just standing there blankly.”

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The experience, Eliason continued, was surreal. “I’m press but I am not really press. I am the guy who goes out to high school football games and little league. To Fun Runs and carnivals. I shoot portraits of colorful characters and local business people. You will see me at dog shows and rodeos,” he wrote. “But here I am, fighting for a little space to shoot some pictures of a press conference. I am standing next to the CNN guy. I get to tell a Fox guy that no, I won’t move so he can put his tripod where I am standing. I get sneered at because I’m local press, not the real thing. And I tell that guy and anyone else who will listen that this is my goddam town.”

Yesterday, Eliason’s post went viral after the journalist Elizabeth Flock shared it on Twitter. Flock was retweeted thousands of times; the Poynter Institute, a journalism ethics and training organization in Florida, posted Eliason’s whole message on its website. Some high-profile observers praised local journalists such as Eliason: “Kudos to the local reporters who bust their asses to cover this story and all the other stories that break every day,” the TV host Soledad O’Brien tweeted. Others considered his words’ implications for the national press. Charlie Warzel, who recently moved from BuzzFeed to The New York Times, reflected on his coverage, in 2017, of a mass shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, a town of about 600 people. At a vigil the same day, more journalists were present than mourners; it was “gross,” Warzel said. Tom Namako, BuzzFeed’s news director, shared Warzel’s message. “It’s a real conversation that needs to be had,” he said. “It doesn’t inspire trust in the national media when it swarms in, sticks cameras in people’s faces, then leaves in days. There are ways to do this and to work together.”

Writing for CJR after the Sutherland Springs shooting, I reflected on what “working together” might look like. The ideas I gathered ranged from the relatively foreseeable—a commitment from news organizations to train their reporters in how to treat trauma victims—to the complex. Instead of adding their reporters to the scrum, national outlets, I wrote, could instead draw on the coverage of local news organizations; use a common pool reporter, as is often the case with political coverage; or report remotely, instead. If national outlets insist on sending their own team to a trauma scene, they could at least stick around and cover the affected community once the initial media furor has died down. “People respect when you don’t treat these shootings like some sort of grim routine, but as uniquely horrific,” the Post’s Eli Saslow told me at the time.

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Gilroy isn’t as tiny as Sutherland Springs; nonetheless, Eliason’s post is a useful reminder that national reporters do traumatized communities a disservice when they parachute in, jostle noisily for interviews with survivors and grieving families, then leave before the dust has settled. Sadly, we’ll have plenty of opportunities to do better going forward.

Below, more on Gilroy and shootings coverage:

  • An agenda, part I: According to Cydney Hargis of Media Matters for America, conservative media outlets used the Gilroy shooting as an opportunity to spread “dishonest,” good-guy-with-a-gun talking points. “In reality, the event reportedly had ‘very tight’ security including armed police officers who were able to engage and neutralize the gunman in less than a minute,” Hargis writes.
  • An agenda, part II: Scott Adams, the creator of the comic strip “Dilbert,” tried to profit off of the Gilroy shooting, The Daily Beast’s Will Sommer and Lloyd Grove report. “In a message to his more than 300,000 Twitter followers, Adams urged… witnesses to make an account on an app he co-founded that allows experts to make money by discussing issues over video calls.” The app, Adams said, would allow witnesses to “set your price” for interviews about the tragedy, with Adams’s company taking a 20-percent cut.
  • Under the radar: Sunday saw another shooting, near Miami—a 68-year-old man was injured as he sat outside of a synagogue waiting for daily prayer. As of last night, the shooter was still at large; The Miami Herald has the details. Police have yet to say whether the shooting was a hate crime—but, as The Atlantic’s Julia Ioffe tweeted, we’ve now seen three shootings in or near American synagogues in the past year.

Other notable stories:

  • Seconds out, it’s round two. Tonight sees the first installment of the second batch of Democratic primary debates; CNN will carry it live from Detroit starting at 8pm Eastern, with Dana Bash, Don Lemon, and Jake Tapper slated to host. All eyes will likely be on Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders as the progressive heavyweights share a debate stage for the first time; Steve Bullock, the Montana governor who didn’t qualify for the first debates, will also appear, along with Pete Buttigieg, Beto O’Rourke, Amy Klobuchar, John Hickenlooper, Tim Ryan, John Delaney, and Marianne Williamson. With qualifying rules set to tighten ahead of future debates, tonight could be the final chance for struggling candidates to make an impression. CNN’s Stephen Collinson has a preview.
  • Yesterday, Trump attacked Elijah Cummings again following his racist weekend tweets about Cummings’s Baltimore district, and also called Al Sharpton “a conman.” Trump is not new to racism; nonetheless, recent weeks have sparked a conversation about how major newsrooms cover race. Politico’s Michael Calderone talked to reporters of color—including Wesley Lowery, of the Post, and Errin Haines Whack, of the AP—about the present moment. “Social media provides an important outlet for minority journalists to speak clearly and decisively about how they see things and create external pressure that forces institutions… to consider perspectives they might not hear,” Lowery said.
  • Also for Politico, Daniel Lippman has a deep look at Trump’s “religious” consumption of print media. The president gets The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and the New York Post every day; because he doesn’t use a computer, staffers print online coverage for him, including the Drudge Report. (Trump sometimes has tweets printed, too.) Top White House aides have tried and failed to control what goes in Trump’s file—often, “would-be influencers” slip in clips they know will rile him up.
  • The New Yorker’s Connie Bruck profiles Alan Dershowitz, the high-profile lawyer whose defense of Jeffrey Epstein has brought him back under the spotlight of late. Dershowitz, a long-time media fixture, has been shunned by some outlets in recent months; he has been accused, in a court filing, of involvement in Epstein’s sex crimes. (Dershowitz denies the allegations.) Before the profile came out, Dershowitz trashed both Bruck and David Remnick, the New Yorker’s editor, in a column for Newsmax, a conservative site, accusing the magazine of preparing a politically motivated “hit piece.”
  • For CJR, Ryan Simonovich profiles the persistent media presence of Lance Armstrong, who continues to provide cycling analysis for NBC Sports and Outside magazine despite having been banned from the sport for life for doping. During this year’s Tour de France, which just concluded, “even as Armstrong’s astute technical analyses spurred headlines, the fact that he was given the opportunity attracted criticism,” Simonovich writes.
  • Some good media-business news: The Athletic, a fast-growing sports-news site, says it now has 500,000 paying subscribers and expects to count close to a million by the end of 2019, Bloomberg’s Ira Boudway reports. The site covers roughly 270 sports teams in nearly 50 North American cities, and will add British soccer to its offering next month. It has “hired hundreds of sports reporters and editors, often from local newspapers.”
  • Some bad media-business news: Rewire.News, a digital nonprofit that covers reproductive and sexual-health rights, is making layoffs; according to the site’s union, all Rewire’s union-eligible reporters have been cut. Elsewhere, John Glidden says he is now the only remaining news reporter at the Vallejo Times-Herald, in California, after a second role was eliminated. As Glidden notes, Vallejo is home to around 120,000 people.
  • More than two months after they started, protests against Chinese rule are escalating in Hong Kong: over the weekend, demonstrators and police clashed; this morning, hundreds of activists disrupted public transit. Yesterday, the Chinese government office responsible for Hong Kong affairs denounced the protests at a rare press conferencethe first the office has held since Hong Kong returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.
  • And in the UK, the left-wing Daily Mirror revealed that Lee Cain—a former Mirror reporter who was just named Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s communications director—dressed as a chicken to shadow Conservative politicians on the paper’s behalf back in 2010. (Johnson is a Conservative.) The “Mirror chicken” has become a fixture of British elections; reporters ostensibly don the outfit to shame candidates who duck questions.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.