Ian Campbell had been working as a public safety reporter for the Roseburg News-Review, his first journalism job out of college, all of five months when the call came over the scanner that there was an active shooter at Umpqua Community College (UCC) in Roseburg, Oregon.
He and a News-Review photographer raced to the scene and just made it to campus before police cordoned off the area. Students were still streaming out of buildings, hands in the air. Teachers scurried, trying to make sure everyone was accounted for. Most people were crying.
Through his own tears, Campbell started working.
“When I started approaching people, I’d ask if they were OK and if their friends and family were OK,” said Campbell, who graduated from the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication (SOJC) in 2014. “I think the best advice I’ve told myself in terms of dealing with people who are part of these tragic events is to make sure that they were OK first.”
Campbell offered his advice to “be a human first” during a panel discussion about covering the UCC shooting at an Oregon Chapter Society of Professional Journalists conference in Portland on Saturday. The panel also included five other photographers, reporters and editors who had covered the event.
One panelist was Chris Pietsch, a veteran photographer for Eugene’s Register-Guard, who had also been on scene at the Thurston High School shooting in 1998. “To have a guy who has been in this business for 30 years say that he’s been to two school shootings — life lesson for the rest of you: It can absolutely happen to you,” Pietsch said.
He echoed Campbell’s compassionate approach and suggested that reporters consider their own ethical boundaries before crisis hits.
“In the heat of the moment, there’s a little bit of pressure, either internal or external, to push it a little bit more than you‘d be willing to,” Pietsch said. “You might think about how you’d be willing to conduct yourself under those circumstances.”
Mike Henneke, city editor for the Roseburg News-Review, described the UCC shooting as “a deluge.”
As if the shock and trauma of the shooting weren’t challenging enough to cover, many new barriers arose for the News-Review staff in the course of their UCC reporting. Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin withheld key details of the event. Community members got angry about the placement of a photo of the shooter. National outlets flooded the small Oregon town, creating fierce competition for local journalists and making community members more reticent to answer questions. Some newsroom managers were stingy about staffing overtime.
In the chaos, Henneke said, a composed leader is critical. “If you’re going to do this, you’ve got to be ready to keep your calm and look around and deal with this stuff coming at you like a bunch of fire hoses at once,” he said. “Did we have the best plans in place? Probably not. Did we do everything right? Absolutely not. But we acted instinctively, and overall I think we did extremely well.”
Therese Bottomly, director of news at The Oregonian, said one lesson her newsroom learned from covering the tragedy at UCC was to dedicate two social media reporters to scour the Internet for information and sources during breaking news.
But that doesn’t mean they always believed what they found.
“In the age of speed and social media and feeding the website constantly, the takeaway is to slow down,” Bottomly said. “You make bad decisions potentially, put out misinformation potentially, miss the real story potentially if you’re going a million miles an hour.”
Tim Steele, a managing editor at Portland broadcast company KOIN, echoed Bottomly’s advice. Despite being live on air from roughly 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Oct. 1, Steele said his outlet did its best to refrain from publishing any news that hadn’t been verified.
Though media competition fuels pressure for outlets to be the first to publish important facts, timing shouldn’t take precedence over the truth, he said. “No civilian has ever told me (that another media outlet) had this three minutes before you did — and I don’t care,” Steele said during the concluding moments of the panel discussion. “I would rather be second and right than first and wrong.”
On that final note, the audience broke into applause.
Story by Sami Edge ’16