Reporting in the Face of Horror

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By Deborah Howell
Sunday, April 22, 2007

The killings at Virginia Tech seized the Post newsroom last week. People in every section, from Metro to KidsPost to the editorial pages to Sports, turned on a dime.

Several editors heard Monday morning on CNN that two people had been shot. The Continuous News Desk confirmed that from the Virginia Tech Web site and sent three paragraphs that were posted at 10:28 a.m. on washingtonpost.com. Within a few hours, 75 reporters were on the story.

Monday was a scramble for facts. The stories were divided into two main themes -- the human tragedy and how authorities handled it. The Virginia Desk was the hub -- and seemed an oasis of calm. The more horrible the story, the calmer editors need to be.

Virginia Editor Mike Semel dispatched the first reporters to Blacksburg about 11 a.m. They were followed by six more Metro reporters, two Style reporters, two photographers and a graphic artist. It was too windy to take a chartered plane. Semel interrupted the noon news meeting to say the death toll was rising. By about 2 p.m., veteran police reporter Sari Horwitz had put the toll at 32. "My editors and I were so shocked. We couldn't believe it was true. I called my sources back and grilled them before we put it on the Web."

Semel oversaw a cellphone conference call to pin down duties as the reporters were driving. "One of the hardest, most important, things we had to do was make sure there was no overlap among the stories we were doing . . . to keep each story tightly focused." Top editors met frequently, even after midnight.

Washingtonpost.com editors sent two videographers and a Web editor to write and do video and audio feeds, photo galleries, podcasts, and live discussions. On Tuesday, they started a blog for breaking news, said Liz Spayd, Web site editor. Washington Post Radio broadcast little but that story for two days.

On Monday reporters did much of their work by phone, calling offices, hospitals, dorm rooms and cellphones, using the online Virginia Tech student and staff directory. Longtime reporter Michael Ruane said this kind of reporting is reflexive, "a primordial act. You don't want to find the kid in the dorm across the street or the hall. You want to find the kid who was in the room with him."

Virginia reporter Tom Jackman was on rewrite with 60 "feeds" from 25 to 30 reporters for the main story. "They were mainly witness accounts from outside Norris Hall," he said. "Then [reporter] Jose Antonio Vargas reached a kid who'd been inside one of the classrooms. That was the first real idea we had of what the terror was like, and who the shooter might've been -- young, Asian, nonverbal, two guns." Vargas used Facebook.com to find eyewitness Trey Perkins.

One reader was upset that reporters called victims' relatives, saying, "It is . . . not something one would expect from a great newspaper." The vast majority of the calls were made to relatives who already knew of their loss. Good reporters don't badger the bereaved, but many people want to talk about their loved ones. Columnist Marc Fisher said, "Stories pack far more power and more meaning when we spurn the official language of journalism and instead let people's emotions cry out."

Decisions about how to display the news and getting the paper out were huge challenges. Space was expanded in the A section and zoning for different jurisdictions was canceled all week. Everything took a back seat to the tragedy.

For Wednesday's paper, there was much discussion about how to play Page 1 stories. Did putting the story about the gunman at the top of Page 1 make him look like a celebrity? What kind of Page 1 presence should the victims have? A promo to a Food section story was dropped as frivolous.

Often, newspapers do a great job the first day or so, and then coverage dwindles. It was the opposite at The Post. Wednesday's paper brought Ian Shapira and Ruane's fine profile of the shooter and touching profiles of the victims.

Editors longed for a reconstruction like the one Associate Editor David Maraniss had done after Sept. 11, 2001, but he was on book leave and convalescing after major hip surgery. Executive Editor Len Downie, who hovered low over everything all week, called him. Maraniss wanted in.

His masterful Thursday story combined the mundane and the horrific in a seamless, detailed narrative. Taking feeds from reporters and interviewing at length the four people whom the story centered on, Maraniss wrote a 138-inch story. He awoke at 5 a.m. Wednesday, having written in his sleep, which he says he often does. He wrote the first four paragraphs at home, hit the newsroom at 6:30 and wrote the last third of the piece first. Then he went back to write the beginning. He set a timer to go off every 40 minutes to remind him of his doctor's orders to walk around.

His main goal: "I don't want to have a point where the reader stops. I want to get them to the last line." Readers' e-mail showed he succeeded. Joyce Kornblatt of Sydney, Australia, wrote: "I can't say exactly why, but reading it has given me some peace -- perhaps because of the reverence for the ordinary that your infinitely sad article emanates."

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or atombudsman@washpost.com.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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