Most of the people in this rural, grieving town with a usual population in the hundreds weren’t locals but outsiders, and many of them members of the news media. It was as if a second town was dumped onto an existing one, in the midst of an unimaginable tragedy that left 26 dead and 20 injured.
After any mass shooting, members of the media — including The Washington Post — swoop into town to document the stories of the victims and their loved ones. Each time this happens, family members affected by the attack are forced to mourn their loss with reporters knocking on their doors. It’s an unpleasant situation, for both the families trying to grieve and the reporters trying to do their jobs.
Now one journalist, saying she was “sickened” by the overwhelming throng of journalists, has made a public apology.
“Dear Sutherland Springs, you deserve an apology from the news media,” wrote Lauren McGaughy of the Dallas Morning News, acknowledging that she felt her own presence was an “intrusion.”
She noted that Sutherland Springs is very different from a big city like Las Vegas, the site of the last mass shooting on Oct. 1, in which Stephen Paddock fired more than 1,000 rounds into the crowd at a music festival, killing 58 and injuring 564 more.
This tiny town, “three square blocks of homes in which nearly every person lost someone,” McGaughy wrote, “should have been treated with more care.”
It was impossible to park at the post office or get a quiet meal at the local cafe, McGaughy said.
“People were holed up in their homes, loathing how a simple trip to the Dollar General would put them in our paths,” McGaughy wrote. “It was an invasion. It was too much.”
“I kept thinking there should be — there must be — a better way to cover a tragedy like this,” she added.
She urged members of the media to have a conversation about “how best to chronicle horrors like this.” She wrote that often, media coverage of mass shootings can prompt much-needed change, or encourage others to step in and help.
“Sometimes, for victims, telling their stories can be cathartic,” McGaughy wrote. “As journalists, our role as observers and investigators in times of tragedy is important. But so is our empathy and our humanity.”
And her piece, which circulated widely on social media, appeared to resonate with journalists and locals alike. Many commended her for her honest, empathetic account.
“This reporter says what some of us have felt for a long time,” tweeted Kris Betts, a reporter and anchor for KVUE, the ABC affiliate in Austin. “We can do better.”
“I witnessed this first hand,” tweeted Christy Millweard, also of KVUE. “‘Media’ who has no clue about this community, throwing trash and parking on lawns. That is NOT what this profession is about.”
And indeed, in the days following the shooting, Sutherland Springs residents expressed a frustration with the onslaught of media requests.
Hank Summers, whose uncle, David Colbath, sustained five gunshots that required extensive surgery, has been posting Facebook live videos throughout the week, updating his relatives and friends on the condition of the shooting’s survivors.
On Tuesday, Summers vented about the reporters who appeared at a vigil the night before.
“They’re vultures, man. They don’t leave you alone. They just want their story,” he said. “It’s great that you want to hear our story but when you’re at a memorial you have no respect. You’re walking around with cameras shining in people’s faces.”
“We’re not here for some festival,” he said. “We’re here because of something the likes of this town, Sutherland Springs, never thought they’d see.”
Yet in the days that followed, he posted multiple news stories, and shared one post that thanked USA Today for a story about the Wilson County sheriff.
One survivor of the attack, Rosanne Solis, sustained a gaping bullet wound in her back, which still hadn’t healed days after the shooting. She returned from the hospital on Tuesday to recover in her home. Within hours, reporters swarmed her trailer, lining up outside her door to talk to her.
In her weak, traumatized and medicated state, she sat through interviews with reporter after reporter, until she simply could do no more. Eventually, she decided she had to leave town to recover away from the media scrum.
The day after the shooting, other grieving families sought shelter and quiet in a church a mile up a country road, guarded by sheriff’s deputies, far from the sea of reporters.
“I was annoyed at first with the fiasco,” Scott Simmons, whose warehouse is down the road from the Sutherland Springs gas station, wrote on Facebook Thursday.
He described running into a reporter at the gas station who was interviewing veterans who were in town to help.
“As she was getting ready to start her interview, a stray dog came up to her,” Simmons wrote. “She bent down and started petting it and playing with the dog. Something about that was just pretty cool. I know that they are there to do their job. Some did great, some were there to stir the pot.”
“Our community is going to hurt for a while,” Simmons wrote. His church was preparing for a funeral for one of the victims of the shooting.
Thursday morning, he said, he saw nearly 100 students and staff outside a local school, praying and singing.
“No media, just true feelings,” he wrote. “We will get through this, but it will change lives forever. Keep praying for our community.”
Ken Herman, a metro columnist for Austin American-Statesman, wrote Thursday that “where evil goes, journalists follow, descending on and often overwhelming the scene, especially among small-town folks who would otherwise never come face to face with people from The New York Times or national TV networks.”
He recounted meeting a woman named Terrie Smith, who owns the kitchen in the convenience store across U.S. 87 from the church.
“You know what,” she told him, “we welcome everybody here and we’ve made new friends. And it’s going to be a little sad to see them go, honestly, because they are more friends that we made.”
“But yeah,” she added, “we’re ready for our quiet little town.”
Peter Holley, reporting from Sutherland Springs, Tex., contributed to this story.