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photo by Cameron Schultz

In the wake of the recent shooting at Umpqua Community College (UCC) in Roseburg, Ore., the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication (SOJC) has been facilitating a conversation about the complexity of covering tragedy in the media. Reporting about tragedy is always difficult, but it becomes even more challenging when such a tragedy occurs so close to home. As a presence both during and after this horrific event, the SOJC is dedicated to continuing this important conversation and assisting UCC students in their ongoing coverage of these complex issues.

Initial response

The SOJC’s response to the UCC shooting was instantaneous. After the first shots were fired the morning of Oct. 1, 2015, the SOJC immediately began seeking journalists to send to UCC. SOJC Senior Photojournalism Instructor Dan Morrison volunteered to cover the shooting and asked SOJC student Cameron Shultz to accompany him. Because of the SOJC’s close proximity to the site of the shootings, which is 65 miles south of the University of Oregon, Morrison and Shultz were called on by national media outlets to act as onsite photographers. The two arrived in Roseburg around 1 p.m., just a few hours after the initial shots were fired, to capture the unfolding events. “Before I could even think about whether or not I wanted to go, I was saying yes, okay,” recalls Shultz.

Upon their arrival, there were no official reports of how many lives had been lost, and the gravity of the situation remained unclear. “We knew it was bad, but we didn’t know just how bad it was,” Morrison remembers.

Both Morrison and Shultz understood that the events of that day might be among the most difficult they would ever cover as journalists, and they were prepared to approach the situation cautiously. “You don’t go to add to the problem,” Morrison explains. “Unless you have a good reason to be there, you absolutely should not be there.”

Following the shooting, UCC was under strict lockdown and students were being evacuated from the campus. Morrison and Shultz arrived at the evacuation site at the Roseburg fairgrounds and took photos of concerned family and friends, medical responders, and the interactions of law enforcement professionals, including state and local police as well as FBI.

Emotions were high as many waited to hear news about their loved ones. Nearly 70 of the images Morrison and Shultz took that day were shared with major news outlets, including CNN and The Daily Beast.

That evening, Morrison and Shultz attended a prayer vigil honoring the victims. They were especially sensitive when documenting the vigil, as this was a time of mourning for the entire community, and stayed for only a few minutes in an effort to respect the privacy of the Roseburg community. “You can’t just walk in and start taking photos. You have to observe, use your eyes, your judgment,” Shultz says. “It’s mostly about being cognizant of the situation. It’s not about you, it’s about what’s happening here. And your job is to show that.”

Morrison returned to Roseburg the subsequent Friday to document the aftermath of the shootings. At that point, it had been confirmed that nine students had been killed and that the killer, who has remained widely unnamed in the media, had committed suicide. Morrison spent the day taking photos at the local hospital, which housed many of the injured victims, and at local businesses that were demonstrating support for the UCC community.

Support and guidance

For the SOJC, the conversation soon turned to how to provide further help and support for the students of UCC. “There is a great push among the faculty now to figure out what is the proper response, not only from our faculty but from our student body,” says Morrison.

The SOJC’s presence throughout the UCC tragedy has extended far beyond first-response efforts. Professors Tim Gleason and Peter Laufer recently visited the UCC campus to meet with the staff and advisor of the school’s newspaper, “The Mainstream.” This small group of community college students is sharing UCC’s stories and working to keep its community informed.

Not only did many staff members of “The Mainstream” have little to no journalistic experience prior to the shooting, but many of them did not even know each other’s names. Within minutes of the start of the lockdown, “The Mainstream” began providing information through its Facebook feed. Students coordinated times to manage Facebook posts around the clock, and the page’s reach quickly hit more than 140,000. The staff also managed to produce four full pages of content that week, despite the fact that much of their equipment was inaccessible due to the lockdown.

As one of UCC and Roseburg’s main sources of information, the stress was palpable for these students. “The Mainstream” reached out to the SOJC for guidance in how they should handle speaking about such a tragedy. “The pressure was so intense,” explains the newspaper’s advisor, Melinda Benton. “We knew that we had extremely limited resources and very little productive energy, but we wanted to do so much.”

During their time at UCC, Laufer and Gleason addressed the students’ questions and concerns and listened to the stories of people who had experienced the horror of the shooting. “We offered additional support from the SOJC and helped the students tell their stories. At this moment, I believe that is the greatest service we can provide,” says Gleason.

The SOJC provided copies of Laufer’s book “Interviewing: The Oregon Method,” The Dart Center’s pamphlet “Tragedies & Journalists,” the Open Oregon Public Records and Public Meetings guides, and audio recorders for the students to use.

With the help of UO student Sutton Raphael, “The Mainstream” will also be producing a multimedia and print project comprising a series of evolving stories on moving forward and UCC’s incredible strength and sense of community. “Laufer and Gleason articulated the one thing we needed to hear the most—that ‘reporting on trauma is its own trauma.’ That one sentence articulated exactly what we were feeling,” says Benton.

The devastation of the shooting continues to affect UCC as well as the entire Roseburg community. Following this unthinkable tragedy, the talented group of students at “The Mainstream” continues to work with diligence and professionalism to share powerful stories and critical information. The newspaper’s efforts are vital to informing students, faculty and Roseburg residents, and the SOJC is committed to helping these students through this difficult time.

The SOJC would like to encourage SOJC faculty and students to like “The Mainstream’s” Facebook page and read, like and share their posts and stories.

Continuing the conversation

The UCC shooting brings up important issues of media ethics and the responsibility journalists have to victims, their families and the communities affected by tragedy. Through various forums, discussions and expert panels, the SOJC has created an ongoing conversation about these sensitive topics.

Discussion began just a day after the shooting with an event that was part of the Experience Engagement event and co-sponsored by the SOJC’s Agora Journalism Center and Journalism That Matters. SOJC student Sami Edge pitched and co-led a session titled “How can we meaningfully cover communities in the wake of tragedy?”.

On Oct. 8, the University of Oregon’s student chapter of the Society for Professional Journalists hosted a discussion about how the Roseburg shooting was handled and whether changes to the way mass casualty events are covered would benefit both journalism and communities. On Oct. 12, Professor Tim Gleason appeared on an expert panel called “Your Voice, Your Vote: Should mass shooters be named?” to discuss the importance of keeping shooter identities anonymous in the media.

Finally, on Oct. 23, the UO-UNESCO Crossings Institute staged a colloquium, “Behind the byline: A panel discussion of the UCC shooting,” focusing 
on the coverage of the Umpqua Community College shootings and similar stories. Staff members of the UCC student newspaper and their adviser, Melinda Benton, joined this discussion.

The SOJC values the stories of the victims of the UCC shootings and all victims of tragedy. It is times of tribulation that test journalists to come together as a community and report with civility and respect. “These are students who have been through a situation that most people in their life can’t even imagine’” says Morrison. “We want these students to know we care about them and we do support them, and if we can help them in any way, we will.”

Story by Nicole Rideout ’16