Just as 20th-century global conflicts and new forms of mass communication created new types of on-the-scene war reportage, rising mass firearm murders in the 21st century and the immediacy of the internet have given rise to another journalistic genre. It, too, requires reporters to navigate scenes of violence and chaos, interview victims suffering from deep terror and trauma, and effectively document what they’ve witnessed in all its agony and horror.
You might call practitioners of this new genre “mass shooting correspondents.”
Some of these reporters have covered multiple mass shootings in their careers. Journalists are increasingly experienced at dealing with them — another measure of how routine these shootings have become in American life.
Just after a gunman killed six people at a Walmart in Chesapeake, Va., on Tuesday night, Michelle Wolf, a reporter for WAVY-TV News, got word over a police scanner of an active shooter. Wolf’s station had sent multiple crews to cover another mass shooting in Charlottesville only 10 days earlier.
In these situations, the terror of the moment must be balanced against the need to inform the public in the midst of a dangerous, fast-moving situation, Wolf said. “My job at that point is not to think about how I’m feeling,” she told me. “It’s to get information out there that’s important.”
Still, the horror of the situation got to Wolf. “Nothing ever prepares you for when it happens,” she said. “It hits you differently every single time.”
When it comes to covering these mini war zones, reporters on the home front are beginning to sound like veteran correspondents. After a man with an AR-15 killed five people in an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs last weekend, Ashley Michels, a reporter at a Denver TV station, offered some grimly revealing testimony.
“Unfortunately, I have covered mass shootings multiple times in my career,” Michels tweeted. She posted examples of vitriolic messages she received for covering that mass killing, adding, “This is the first time I can recall getting message after message from viewers like this.”
The vile, deranged hate directed at LGBTQ victims was new to Michels. The experience of covering a mass shooting was not.
This year alone has seen more than 600 mass shootings in the United States. Many reporters now have a deep working knowledge of how to cover them, and some have tried to grow and develop their craft along with the experience.
For instance, William Brangham, a producer and correspondent for PBS NewsHour who has covered multiple such shootings, has worked to become more sensitive to trauma felt by victims’ loved ones and people who were present during the carnage.
“These people are experiencing the worst day of their life,” Brangham told me. The complication, he noted, is “doing your job” in gathering information even as you’re “standing shoulder to shoulder with people who are sobbing and grieving.”
“It’s a very fine balance,” said Brangham, who recently helped produce a special report on gun violence in America. “You have to have all of your humanity.”
Another reporter who has covered numerous mass shootings and requested anonymity to talk candidly about her work describes a dark aspect of her evolution. When she covered the killing of nearly three dozen people at Virginia Tech in 2007, she interviewed college students looking for missing friends. She thought, “I bet they will find them.”
That changed by the time she covered the 2012 killing of a dozen people in a movie theater in Aurora, Colo. She recalls interviewing people searching for loved ones: “My brain was telling me they were probably not going to find their friend alive,” she says. “I still hate that I was right about that.”
Michael Schudson, a historian of journalism at Columbia University, notes that war correspondence as a calling really developed in the 20th century. The two world wars, followed by major conflicts in places such as Vietnam, intersected with the growth in mass media, and TV elevated war correspondents into widely recognized cultural figures.
Mass shootings, or at least their immediate aftermath, are now widely covered on TV as well as social media. While shootings are obviously different from wars in all kinds of respects, and while reporters covering shootings don’t define themselves by this coverage as war correspondents do, the parallels are unmistakable.
“The experience of reporters coming upon those horrific scenes must be searing, in the same way it is for war correspondents,” Schudson told me, citing “the bodies on the floor, the crying and the suffering.”
“There shouldn’t be a connection,” Schudson said. “But it seems to me that there is.”
After a gunman killed 19 children last spring at a school in Uvalde, Tex., Dylan Stableford, a senior editor at Yahoo News who has been involved with coverage of numerous mass shootings, unfortunately knew he and his team would be prepared.
“Sadly, we had people on my staff, myself included, who had covered plenty of school shootings,” Stableford told me. “Even though it was a crazy amount of kids dying, we know how to do that. It’s a grim, sad reality.”