How We Got The Story: Sticking to clear purpose was key to reporting on anniversary of mass shooting
As a reporter, any time you are assigned a story that revisits a past tragedy you know it will involve opening wounds that are in various stages of healing. It's so important to think about the purpose and goals of the story long before you ever risk retraumatizing the people involved.
The mass shooting at JB's in Elgin in 2001 occurred before I was even a member of the Daily Herald reporting team. I had no experience with the event.
I started by immersing myself in everything I could find that was written about it or documented what happened. Court files. Witness testimonies. Dozens of newspaper articles by various outlets.
I read lots of stories about what police and lawyers had to say about what happened. I read stories about what neighbors, ex-wives, girlfriends and relatives had to say about the shooter. I read about lawsuits. I read about funerals reporters were not allowed into. I read about the struggle to reopen JB's and move on.
I didn't read anything that gave me a real grasp of what the victims were going through in the aftermath. So it quickly became my main goal for the story. Somewhere along the way of the initial reporting, the coverage became about a crime happening. It was long past due to tell the stories of the people impacted by that crime.
My rule for talking to victims boils down to one principle: Don't be a jerk. Invading the grief of victims right after a tragedy can often feel, well, wrong -- unless the victims make the first move. If they don't want to talk to you, don't be a vulture. When they are ready (if they are ready) be there to listen.
With 20 years to heal, it seemed like the time was right to who was ready to share. And those stories seemed even more poignant now, with 20 additional years of mass shootings in this country and still no end in sight.
It was hard to find victims. Over the last 20 years, many have moved away. Some have passed away. Others didn't want to talk for fear of reopening old wounds that didn't feel that old to them. And there were also people concerned that revisiting the shooting could bring fame to the shooter that was not available in the pre-social media days of 2001.
I kept all those concerns on a note I taped to my computer and thought about them every time I sat down to write or prepare interview questions. That was the least I owed people for sharing, or even thinking about sharing, the most difficult moment of their lives with me.
As I found people willing to talk, the conversations often veered into related, but touchy subjects. How did a convicted felon even have all these guns? Is the death penalty the only real justice for shootings like this?
Those are issues the victims think about and talked about. It's part of the confusion. Part of the unanswered "why." Part of the sense of missing justice.
But I knew any story that veered even into the shallow ends of discussions about Second Amendment rights and the death penalty would quickly overshadow my goal for the story. I didn't want the discussion after the story ran to be about politics. I wanted the victims to finally have the chance to share their pain. I wanted the story to be about people.
Journalists write stories all the time about the number of people shot on a holiday weekend in Chicago, or annual crime statistics or the latest mass shooting. It becomes so common it's easy to forget those numbers are people. Real people. Real pain. Lives were taken and families changed forever.
No matter your position on any of the related political issues, that's the story we can all connect to. For me, that's the story we must strive to tell every time we report on life-altering crimes -- even if it takes 20 years before people are ready to talk about it.