Arizona Daily Wildcat Editors Discuss Paper’s Coverage of Shooting, Aftermath

Top editors at The Arizona Daily Wildcat were preparing for a staff meeting last Saturday when reports first began streaming in about a shooting at a Safeway not far from the University of Arizona campus.

The meeting never happened. Instead, the reporting began, and has continued nonstop. Over the past week, the Wildcat presented a myriad of stories, commentaries, photos, and tweets about many aspects of the shooting, its aftermath, and its impact on Tucson and UA.

The newspaper’s impressive feats of journalism join a pantheon of student press successes in covering breaking news of international heft.  (Two examples of fairly recent vintage: the exemplary Yale Daily News reporting on the killing of graduate student Annie Le and the comprehensive coverage of the fall 2009 G-20 summit by The Pitt News.)

Below, editor in chief Michelle Monroe and news editor Luke Money reflect on the challenges of covering a major breaking news event– and the benefits of being a student news outlet while doing it.

Michelle Monroe, a journalism major at the University of Arizona, is The Arizona Daily Wildcat editor in chief.

What were the first steps the paper took to mobilize into breaking news reporting mode?

Monroe: I was walking toward the door of our newsroom for an early Saturday meeting with the newspaper’s editors when I got a text from my friend [informing her of the shooting].  The news editor, Luke Money, and his two assistants were both sitting at a table waiting to enter the newsroom.  They were at the newsroom before it happened preparing for the meeting, so when the news arrived they were 10 feet away from all their computers, phones and contacts.

Upon entering the three of them began calling the University Medical Center, Giffords’ office, the Tucson Police Department, the Pima County Sheriff’s Department, and other officials to confirm the shooting.  One of the assistant news editors, Bethany Barnes, went down to the hospital and waited until the first statement was released.  They covered the story for the entire day, switching off manning the phones until night.

Luke also began tweeting updates and writing a breaking news story for our website within moments of hearing about the shooting. As details changed and the full story began to form, the stories were updated and changed and the tweets continued for the next four days. We called the photo editor, Tim Glass, immediately, and he called every photographer on staff until one picked up and headed down to the scene of the crime. He sent another photographer to the hospital immediately to catch any images of victims being taken inside.

So far, what have been the challenges to covering this story?

Monroe: The most difficult part of reporting, I believe, was confirming facts, but being up first.  There were a lot of reports flying around.  We were being pressed to get updated reports up quickly.  But unless we had an official confirmation, we tried to not put anything online [simply because] we had heard about it somewhere else.

Money: The biggest challenge was remaining aware of the fact that although this story presents new and exciting opportunities it also represents a tremendous tragedy to anyone connected with the UA or Tucson.  Balancing that excitement and personal sentiment has proven difficult for my staff.

What are the advantages of being a student news outlet while covering a story like this?

Monroe: The advantage of being a student news outlet is that it’s easy to find people who have been personally affected by this tragic event.  Gabrielle Giffords is a huge part of Tucson’s identity and she has a significant impact on the university campus.  Many of the students on campus interned with her, including members of our student government.  It was helpful [to be a student outlet] because we have contact information for almost every member of the Associated Students of the University of Arizona Senate and executive branch and they have strong ties to the local and state government.

Daniel Hernandez Jr. [the individual who helped save Giffords’ life] is a very well-known student.  Many people at the newspaper had personal connections with him and were able to provide his contact information to an unbiased reporter immediately.

The university is also a center of the town, so we are in close proximity to the hospital where the victims were taken.  Also, as students, we were able to know the correct people at the university to call immediately when the memorial was announced.  We have a very distinct culture and community on campus and as a student news outlet it was helpful to have such a multitude of sources and angles in such a concentrated area.

Money: Mobilization was as simple as getting people to come to campus.  The fact that we’re students made it much easier to talk to students and enable them to be more candid and relaxed.  This allowed us to more effectively gauge student reactions.  And we had home field advantage.  We had other news organizations asking us who to call and we were able to have that information immediately, many of us in our cell phones.

Have you covered the story mainly from a student or UA perspective or gone toe-to-toe with the pro outlets and covered it from all angles?

Monroe: As stated in our purpose, the Arizona Daily Wildcat is dedicated to reporting on campus and world affairs with a specific university or campus focus. Generally if there is no campus connection, we don’t print it in our paper. We chose to cover the story from the student and UA perspective. We have a unique audience that we cater to, so we try to tailor our ideas to fit that niche.  I don’t have a specific count, but I believe we have more than 20 articles written on the subject from a variety of angles with a campus focus.

However we do report on political movements and we’re working on a story about what will happen if Giffords is not able to make it to Congress, if there is a special election, etc. Gabrielle Giffords was such a large figure on campus that we may choose to continue to cover the political upheaval or consequences of this tragedy.

An editor in chief before me once once told me that in the New York Times there are six clocks, each displaying a different time zone.  But the Las Vegas Sun has six clocks, all set to Las Vegas time, because staffers there know their strength is in being masters of their own community.  I like to apply that message to the Daily Wildcat.

If someone is passionate about an article that is newsworthy that may not have a campus focus, we will probably print it. But we work hard to master our community’s ins and outs. If there is a newsworthy article about a non-campus-related event, we will run the wire article because we know our readers would be interested in reading it.  But we don’t have to go toe-to-toe with major news sources about world events.  With this event we are able to go toe-to-toe because Giffords’ story is closely tied to campus.

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