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The Journalists

Traumatic events like the Route 91 shooting are followed by an immediate search for answers. How many people died? Who are the survivors? What did they see, hear, smell, experience? Who, exactly, was Paddock? What motivated him, and how did he pull off the shooting? Was he mentally ill? Was he a lone wolf, or are his conspirators still out there? Journalists are the ones who swoop in—often under immense pressure—to help answer these questions. At the ACIA conference, three local journalists shared their experiences covering the Route 91 shooting. These are their stories.

Jackie Valley, Reporter, Nevada Independent

Valley was getting ready for bed on Sunday evening, October 1, when she saw a tweet about something happening at the Route 91 Festival near the Strip. She texted a few friends who were there, then messaged her editor on Slack. She writes for the newly launched Nevada Independent, an online publication covering politics, business and education—not crime.

 

Journalism has changed dramatically over the last decade. As the Internet and social media drove reporters to cover 24/7 news cycles, local publications, even legacy brands, struggled to keep up. Many downsized and changed their editorial strategies. Some shuttered. Today, journalism demands more than ever from writers: more copy at a faster pace, often for less money. For newsrooms driven by clicks, many journalists aren’t chasing the most fascinating stories but rather quick hits or rewrites with the potential to go viral. For community news organizations like the Nevada Independent, this new climate means covering a specific set of subjects well, and passing on anything that veers from that mission.

But as Valley put it, “When you see something happening on the Strip, obviously it’s worth looking into.”

She quickly got dressed and headed out, stopping at UNLV’s Thompson and Mack center and a church near the shooting before going to the convention center to interview victims’ families. That day, she filed her anecdotes back to her team to amplify a larger article. Then she walked the Strip. “This is a place normally about fun and happiness, and every couple of hundred feet there was another cop car parked, and it was dead silent,” she said.

After two weeks of nonstop reporting, Valley said her editor decided to pause the publication’s coverage of the shooting. “It wasn’t in our wheelhouse,” she said. “This was one of our first tests: How do we wrap our minds around covering something like this with only five people on staff? We couldn’t do every victim’s story, and I kinda hated that. But it was the reality of what we were dealing with.”

Cindi Moon Reed, Staff Writer, Las Vegas Weekly

Like so many people, Reed learned about the shooting on social media. That Sunday night, she checked Facebook before getting in bed and saw some of her friends tweeting about a shooting at the Route 91 Festival. She’d been there that afternoon, gathering material for an arts feature. “I assumed it was two dudes shooting each other, but then it just kept getting worse. It was the worst feeling in the entire world at that moment,” Reed said. She sobbed as she followed reports of a shooter at the Bellagio, the Luxor, on the Strip. Listening to her police scanner, she heard cops announce which floor of Mandalay Bay they’d cleared. After texting her on-call editor, she and her boyfriend sat together, following the news and hugging each other all night.

The next morning, Reed was in the office by 7:00 AM for a staff meeting. She was the only person in the newsroom who’d attended the event, so she started drawing diagrams of the scene. “I’m getting phone calls from the LA Times, because I write op-eds for them. They wanted one right away,” she said. “The national newspapers were trying to get as many local journalists to come on deck and it was like, ‘Oh, do you want The Washington Post? Do you want The Guardian?’ There was nobody I could give these dream assignments to because everybody was busy.”

After quickly writing a first-person account for the paper—which went on to win a Nevada Press Association award—she turned to her story for the arts section. “You can’t just have nothing in the rest of the newspaper,” she said. The next day, she wrote a piece about the shooting for the L.A. Times, and on Friday, she met with a crisis counselor. “UNLV made it so easy. No forms, no insurance. This was a community thing, not connected to our newsroom.”

Rachel Crosby, Reporter, Las Vegas Review-Journal

Crosby wasn’t surprised when she received a text about a possible active shooter at Mandalay Bay. Having worked the local crime beat for two years, she’d heard of shootings on the Strip. A month before, she said, a statue fell over and someone reported it as gunshots, leading to a massive police response. But then her boyfriend played a video from Twitter, saying, “Rachel, I think this is real.”

“That was the moment everything clicked inside me,” she said. “I went to journalism school, did internships and got my job. In training, you learn as you go. But there’s no training for responding to a mass casualty incident. I realized in that moment the importance of that training. I realized something was happening. I didn’t know the extent, but it was serious and real and people were getting killed.”

Crosby’s first stop was UMC—she knew it was the only level 1 trauma center in Vegas. She arrived around 10:45 PM, and soon found herself surrounded by journalists, all of them waiting for information. “I understand now, one of the reasons it was so hard to get information was that no one really knew what was going on,” she said. “I noticed that no ambulances were showing up. Police are here. The streets are shut down. Why is there no flood of ambulances?”

Crosby spotted a group of nurses smoking cigarettes by a back door to the hospital, so she walked over, pulled out a cigarette and introduced herself. “I didn’t have to ask any questions. It was word vomit,” she said. “One person said there were so many gunshot wound victims. The next woman said the same thing. At one point, this guy gets on the phone and calls his loved one and gets on his knees saying ‘Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.’ I knew that whatever happened was significant.”

Later that night, Crosby received a text from a source saying there were more than 20 people dead. “I was the first person to report that,” she said. “At this point, there were some offhand reports of two people dead, but this was the first confirmation we had that this was a mass shooting… I’d never been in a moment where, as I was reporting I was also combatting trauma inside of me. I sent out that tweet and all the wheels started moving after that.”

She worked straight until 7:00 AM. At one point, NPR called and asked to interview her about her experience. She pulled her car into a parking lot and did the interview, then went home to sleep. A couple hours later, she was back in the newsroom. “Being on a crime team and having sources and reporting out this story, I was in the thick of it for at least two weeks,” she said. “I didn’t eat much. I didn’t sleep much. I didn’t drink much water. The newspaper brought in crisis counselors the week of. I was like, ‘I don’t have time to do that.’ So I didn’t do it. They brought more in the next week, and it was very helpful. I talked to someone for an hour. I was like, ‘Okay, that wasn’t really that much of a waste of time.’ I was still on an adrenaline rush. I needed to work. I needed to write. It took a month to breathe again.”

This fall, Crosby was named Outstanding Journalist by the Nevada Press Association for her work covering the shooting, and won awards for best news feature story and best local column.

What did you struggle with most in the month after the shooting?

Valley: “The feeling we weren’t doing enough. There were so many stories to tell, and the constant turn of press conferences and political happenings.”

Reed: “The hardest thing was dealing with the idea of all of it happening, and having the city you love suddenly be attacked. Suddenly I couldn’t stand the site of the Strip or Mandalay Bay—and you can see it from everywhere. I was having weird nightmares about endless highways circling Mandalay Bay, trying to escape the area and not being able to.”

Crosby: “Every beat was covering shooting stories, and there wasn’t time to talk about it. It was isolating. Even though we were all working on the same thing, we were in our own little bubble. We all got drinks that Friday. None of us really wanted to go out, but we did it anyways, and that was really helpful. We had therapy dogs in the newsroom. But because we were so busy it felt like, being the reporter, in the news room, it was unnecessary.”

Role of the national media?

Valley: “They do a lot of things right. They are practiced at it, too. They have it down to a rhythm; when it happens, they’re boarding planes. One person will be at police conference, one at the memorial. For us locals it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, where do you begin?’ There’s also tension. The police weren’t prepared for the influx of journalists. In the media center, they didn’t have the seating capacity for the hordes of people who arrived. There’s this lobby outside of it and it was elbow to elbow people. They said, ‘We only have x-number of spots, it’s first come first serve.’ I’m not aggressive. I was trying to get in but you had people saying, ‘I’m with so and so in New York City and we’re going live at 6:00 PM and we need to get in there! Then local journalists had a tougher time getting in.”

Another time, Valley was granted an interview with a survivor.

The Washington Post and L.A. Times were there, and they told me we were going to do these interviews, but the person is really tired. This is at 4:00 PM. I’m driving there, and I don’t know if this is right to do to this person. What will I get that’s different from the L.A. Times and the Post? I don’t know if it was the right call but I called my editor and said, ‘Do we want to put this person through that and do this story?’ We passed.”

Reed: “The national media got wrong this idea that Vegas moved on immediately. That was in the lead of some national magazine piece about Parkland activism—Vegas moves on but Parkland gets real. I think that’s the one thing: You have to keep going to your job. You can’t quit because it happened, but that doesn’t mean you’ve moved on emotionally.

What amazed me was that Vegas came together in a way I’ve never seen before, and not just with a Vegas Strong t shirt. Everyone I knew was doing something to help. I get a lot of press releases, but I got one about a foot fetish event donating proceeds. Everyone was doing what they could.”

Crosby: “As soon as the national spotlight went away, the attitude changed. After that second week, there wasn’t another press conference until January, and that was announcing the release of the police report…  We had this first two week period of press conferences trying to update the national media and the fervor of people, and after that we were on information lockdown. We were trying to get what we could from any source that we could and that was really difficult. Then there was reader fatigue. It’s hard to do your job when you’re dealing with this crazy experience and also when you’re not the New York Times or The Washington Post.”

Role of social media?

Valley: “I talked to this guy who’d been at the concert and I was getting his story. He says, ‘I took a video of the shooting. Do you want it?’ He was fleeing to Luxor and said he took out his phone and captured 20 seconds of just pure shooting. Luckily it didn’t have any bloodshed. It was chilling because you hear the sound. We did post it because it didn’t show anything horrific. But the sound makes it so much more real to people who weren’t there.

“A week later, we were working on a story about what the shooting means for Las Vegas, and whether the city can recover. I went to the Welcome to Las Vegas sign and it was total serendipity—this group of Metro officers arrived with a truck of 50 white crosses and one with a blue heart for the officer. I took a video for Twitter and walked the length of the crosses after they set them up. It was in the moment. As reporters, we chronicle. One of those tweets has 17,000 shares. That’s the power of social. The video put into perspective how many people’s families and lives were ruined. It’s another way to tell the story in a way you can’t convey in written words.

Crosby: “When I did share on social media that there were more than 20 people killed, it was an in-the-moment thing: I got that confirmation and I’m sending it out. This is what I’m supposed to do. I didn’t look at any responses until the next day. I was trying to focus. But I went back and so many people responded to that initial death toll, saying ‘This is wrong! Fox or CNN only has two people dead! How could you do something like this?’ I’m thankful I didn’t see that until later. But I also had people coming to my defense, saying ‘This is a local reporter, she probably has good sources.’ It’s easy to try to discredit someone by typing into your computer screen.”

By Abigail Jones

© 2018