‘Conveyor belt of killing’: Covering Arkansas’ rush of executions

Josh Rushing, via Flickr

NEXT MONTH, THE STATE OF ARKANSAS will execute eight men in just 11 days—a staggering pace that has left death penalty experts reeling, and has prompted two dozen former correctional officers from across the country to urge the state to reconsider. Why the grisly need for speed? The state’s supply of a key lethal injection drug expires at the end of April, and it’s hard to buy more; drug companies “don’t want their products used to kill people.” Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson’s solution—a “conveyor belt of killing,” as the Guardian puts it—is being contested as “cruel and unusual” in lawsuits filed by two of the condemned inmates.

Some executions get far more attention than others, and this unprecedented spate of killings has already garnered headlines around the country. Some stories point to concerns about the psychological impact on those required by duty to be part of the process, including execution teams, correctional officers, and state-mandated witnesses.

Reporting on these stories can also leave a mark, says Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma and the author of Legal Lynching: The Death Penalty and America’s Future. “No two reporters are going to react the same,” says Shapiro. “On the whole, as a tribe, reporters are pretty resilient. But there is no doubt that witnessing death, whether at the hands of a person or the hands of the state, can take a toll.”

“I’m sure there’ll be a lot of, ‘Let’s sit around and drink and talk about this’ after each one,” says  David Bailey, managing editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “It’s a draining story to cover, not just for the reporters on the scene but the editors as well.” Bailey edited coverage of a pair of executions on the city desk at the Baton Rouge Advocate in the 1980s. “You don’t sleep well after that,” he says.

For coverage of next month’s executions, Bailey says there will be a pool report from within the chamber, but he doesn’t know yet if the Democrat-Gazette will be in it. (Hometown reporters get preference from the state Department of Corrections, followed by the Associated Press, which has a policy of covering every execution. The AP was unavailable for comment.) While several Democrat-Gazette staffers have covered executions before, it’s been a long time since anyone witnessed an execution in Arkansas; the state hasn’t performed one in 12 years. Now, the paper is gearing up to tell the stories of eight executions in about as many days, and the unique circumstances surrounding them.

The brain doesn’t distinguish between real threats in the world, real violence in the world, and a steady diet of toxic imagery that we encounter in the course of our profession

For one thing, as the paper reported earlier this week, the state is having trouble finding the six to 12 witnesses it requires for each procedure. And attorneys of the inmates have filed a petition for a new hearing with the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing the state’s schedule is “far outside the bounds of what contemporary society finds acceptable.”

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“You prepare for a lot of eventualities,” says Bailey. “Last-minute stays. Clemency orders. Sometimes executions go off without a hitch. Sometimes there’s a hitch. We have to just anticipate as many possibilities as we can and provide for those, and then have staff available for the unexpected as well.”

The Dart Center’s Shapiro recommends news managers planning this type of coverage “think hard about how to rotate staff so that no one is carrying an overwhelming burden.” That goes not only for assigning witnesses to the chamber, he says, but for those attending hearings, or interviewing victims’ families, or digging into court records from the original cases. Piecing together the convict’s own childhood and background can also uncover horrific stories of violence and abuse.

“The brain doesn’t distinguish between real threats in the world, real violence in the world, and a steady diet of toxic imagery that we encounter in the course of our profession,” says Shapiro. Whether you personally witness something horrific or just read about it, the traumatic effect can be similar. The impact can range from a few days of lost sleep, trouble concentrating, and nightmares to a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. (Shapiro also notes that plenty of journalists on these stories won’t experience any notable side effects.)

Photojournalists, copy editors, fact checkers, and others who contribute to the coverage are no less susceptible than reporters. Shapiro says news managers should keep an eye out for usually reliable staffers blowing their deadlines, or calling in sick more than usual. “If you see yourself or a colleague pulling away, that’s something to pay attention to. Social isolation is the single biggest risk factor,” he says.

One reporter found herself crying while giving her pool report after the execution, surrounded by reporters from other outlets who noticed and swarmed her for their own interviews

Ziva Branstetter, the editor in chief of Tulsa, Oklahoma’s investigative journalism nonprofit The Frontier, says the “number one thing” news managers should avoid is pushing anyone into this coverage. “Don’t make them feel less-than as a journalist if they don’t want to do it. It has to be completely voluntary,” she says.

Branstetter, who recently announced plans to join The Center for Investigative Reporting as a senior editor, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her 2014 coverage of the botched execution of Oklahoma death-row inmate Clayton Lockett. During his execution, Lockett suffered an exploded vein after his lethal injection cocktail was administered. The problem drug in Lockett’s case was midazolam, the sedative that’s set to expire in Arkansas. Lockett’s flawed execution spurred the midazolam shortage behind Arkansas’s rush to execute next month.

Branstetter covered her first execution in 1990, as a 26-year-old reporter at the Tulsa World. Her editors were assigning the execution of Charles Troy Coleman, the first Oklahoma inmate to be executed in 24 years. “I was the third person they came to, and the first one who said yes,” she says. “It sounds so freaking callous, but I wanted to be in on the biggest story. And I felt I had a responsibility as a reporter to witness it.” She had covered death before, reporting on tornadoes, and didn’t think this would be much different. “I thought, I can do this, no big deal.”

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Branstetter was among the pool reporters permitted to witness the execution. At the time, she felt ready for the challenge of witnessing Coleman’s death. In hindsight, she says she wasn’t.

“It was what the offender said at the moment of death,” she says. “He said, ‘Tell everyone I love them. I have a peace and quiet heart.’ It just got to me.”

Branstetter found herself crying while giving her pool report after the execution, surrounded by reporters from other outlets who noticed and swarmed her for their own interviews. They demanded to know why she was crying and pressed for her personal views on the death penalty. “I was mortified,” she says. “I thought I was going to get in trouble back at the office, but they were super nice about it.”

She had nightmares and trouble sleeping for a while after that, but didn’t shy away the next time a similar assignment came around; she has witnessed three executions since then. In 2015, as editor-in-chief of The Frontier, her newsroom became one of several regional news outlets to partner with the Marshall Project on The Next To Die, a database that tracks upcoming executions.  

Before she covered Coleman’s death, Branstetter had been prepped by a more experienced reporter—one of the most important things a seasoned colleague can do for a reporter witnessing their first execution, she says.

“Make it very clear exactly what they’re going to see,” says Branstetter. “Walk them through it. Tell them, ‘You’re going to get in a van. They’ll take you down to this holding area. Sit you down in these chairs. You’ll hear the other inmates banging on bars. That’s a sign of respect for the inmate. If there’s not much banging, there’s not much respect.’”

She’d also make a point of alerting the reporter that they may encounter the inmate’s own family in the witness area. “That’s just something else, seeing someone’s sister or grandmother watching them die. You have to be ready to put a wall up emotionally.”

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Shapiro says it’s also crucial that reporters understand the physical effects of lethal injection. “Make sure reporters who are covering these events have appropriate scientific knowledge of the process that they’re watching,” he says. While witnessing the execution of Timothy McVeigh, a couple reporters noted a single tear running down his cheek and put that detail in their stories, interpreting it as evidence McVeigh was reacting emotionally to what was happening to him. An anesthesiologist who read the stories “was completely aghast,” says Shapiro, knowing what the reporters didn’t: discharge from the tear duct can be a sign that a drug responsible for keeping a patient anesthetized is wearing off.

In Arkansas, the Democrat-Gazette’s Bailey anticipates reporters from national outlets will swarm in to cover the parade of capital punishment, should the deaths proceed as planned, but says his paper “is very conscious of who our audience is.”

“We’re not writing for a national audience, for folks several states away,” says Bailey. “We’re writing for people who live here, and live with this, and we will write the story we think they need to have.”

His paper is one of few outlets to note that Arkansas has done something like this before; in 1994, the state executed three men in just one day. Bailey was an editor at the paper then, too, but the then-executive editor decided how the story would run. “We had very minor coverage,” Bailey recalls. “The practice was to handle any execution as normal, even if they did three in one night. Just the natural turning of the wheels.” He and several other editors pushed for deeper coverage. Ultimately, the story didn’t make the front page.

“It’s not like what we do in this instance can offset what occurred years ago,” says Bailey, “but we’re trying to make sure we do the coverage right.”

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Tasneem Raja writes for national magazines and journals, with a focus on culture and technology. A former senior editor at NPR, she launched a popular podcast exploring issues of identity and race with NPR's Code Switch team. At Mother Jones, she specialized in data visualization and was part of a team that compiled the first-ever database of mass shootings in America. She's a pioneer in the field of data-driven digital storytelling, a frequent speaker on issues of inclusion and diversity in the workplace, and a die-hard fan of alt weeklies, where she got her start as a local reporter. She lives in small-town East Texas with her husband and stepson.