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July 23, 2012

Responding in Aurora

I had stepped out of the shower and was flushing the toilet at 7:30 a.m. on Friday morning, July 20, when my phone buzzed. I'd forgotten to turn my alarm off. So I swiped the alarm-off swipe (it's an iPhone), and then looked at the phone. And there was a phone number on it. I hadn't turned off my alarm; I'd just answered my phone. (The toilet was still flushing.)

It was Sandra Fish, a CU journalism instructor. "What are you doing in, say, the next half an hour?" she asked. I had an appointment on campus at 8:30 and then was set to head out on an annual group camping trip with Judah at 11. I'm going camping today, I said. Why? "Twelve people were killed last night in the midnight showing of Batman. I'm looking for people to go with me to Aurora."

Twelve people killed. My first thought was a collapse, like the stage collapse in Indiana. For some reason, the roof caved in. "Killed" is an ambiguous term. But a collapse didn't really make sense. Judah was awake when I went into the bedroom, and he brought it up on his iPad. Not a collapse. Much worse.

I left for my appointment, mainly intending to keep it, but brought my camera. Just in case. Just to have it.

By the time I got to campus, I had changed my mind. This was national news. (It hadn't occurred to me yet that it was actually international.) It's not just that I was eager for the experience, but with something so big, so weighty, it felt strange to leave to go camping rather than going to the scene. So I called Fish back, and I cancelled my appointment, and I headed along with fellow grad students Charles Trowbridge and Katharina Buchholz to Aurora, making plans along the way. The goal was to help cover the events of the day, background, and peripheral stories to then feed out to news outlets to augment their coverage. Our material would be provided by the CU Journalism News Service, a new and valuable entity created to help with coverage of the Colorado wildfires.

First: I can't even fathom what it is like to have been inside that theater, to know someone who was inside that theater, and especially to have lost someone inside that theater. My day was emotionally detached, always aware of the horror of the situation but never in direct contact with anyone in or connected to someone who had been in that theater. So as I'm describing my experience, which has to do with experiencing the event as media, please do not think that I am unaware of or unconcerned with the gravity, tragedy or grief of the day and of many days, for many people, to come.

I had no idea what it would be like for me to head into an event like this, but I needed to find out. Fish formulated a plan in the car, and when she began to assign us tasks and places, I admit I seized for a moment, realizing that we were going to split up. And I'd have to approach people and places on my own. And not knowing if I could do it--not knowing if I could approach someone in the fray, anyway. As it turned out, none of us, as mentioned, talked to anyone grieving. I think that would have made for a very different day.

[One of two halls for neuroscience studies at University of Colorado Denver Anschutz Medical Campus.]

News had come out on our drive down that James Holmes had been a neuroscience student at University of Colorado Denver Anschutz Medical Campus, just blocks from his apartment. Fish dropped Charles and I off at the university, so that Charles could find the media contact for a story that I won't disclose in case he's able to pick it up at a later date, and I headed off to find the neuroscience researchers to try to talk to someone who knew the shooter.

It took me a bit to find the right building.

When I did, a woman I met who works there said they'd been on lock-down. They were only letting people in with card access. She was willing to let me in, walking me to the door, but by that time--about 9:45--the doors were open and the place seemed normal. A delivery man later told me the place had been swarming with cops (or maybe security guards) that morning, that "they were checking backpacks and everything." But when I got there, things were quiet. Actually, too quiet. Every single office in the two neuroscience hallways was shut, except one. And no one was in it.

It looked like I would come up dry. Probably, everyone was taking the day off, considering. But I couldn't give up too easily, so I went down the hall to another program, found an open door, and politely asked the woman inside a few questions. The neuroscientists were all in a meeting, she said.

I waited.

I talked to the delivery man.

I saw two students go into a lounge and poked my head in. "Did you know James Holmes?" I asked one.

"Who are you?"

"Press," I replied, somewhat sheepishly.

"No comment."

The other person, speaking animatedly on his cell phone to someone in another language had interjected "Dark Night" earlier into his conversation and now said "journalist," so I asked if he had known him, and no, no, I did not know him, and that was that.

I went down to the lobby.

I eavesdropped. Two people stood engrossed in conversation, talking about last night. About how they were sure that one of their friends knew the guy, had probably been to his apartment.

I eventually broke in. (I was carrying a notebook and a camera, so it's not exactly like I was trying to trick people.) Did they know him?

Yes, they were in his cohort, all just having finished their first year in biomedical sciences, of which neuroscience is part. They'd taken a core class of about 60 people with Holmes.

But they didn't really want to talk--not to me. "I don't really know him," said the woman. "I just know that he was socially awkward." She said she avoided him, but didn't have a specific reason why. "I never talked to him," she said. "I just--he always sat alone in class."

But, her friend pointed out, some other people sat alone as well.

She didn't want her name used. Fair enough.

I left to find Charles.

He had come up dry as well.

We found Fish and Kat at the scene outside Holmes' apartment building and Fish stayed on while Charles, Kat and I left to find the press conference. Running late. Trouble navigating. Did I mention my phone wasn't fully charged, that it was actually almost dead already? That I only had one charged battery for my camera? That I had failed to bring anything to download pictures with, or my laptop? I've never responded to spot news--that is, news that is unplanned. The things that just happen, and that you have to be ready to respond to. Lessons learned. So I was trying to navigate from Charles' phone, which is different from mine. We listened to coverage on the radio as we drove. They were running late. We still had time. The press conference was at the theater, but all entrances to the mall were blocked off with police tape. We got to what we thought was the access, and an officer told us where we could drive right in. But the officer at that entrance asked if we had press credentials, and we didn't, and he turned us away in such a way that arguing was pointless. By that time, the press conference had started, and within ten minutes of pulling over to listen, it was over. Aurora police chief Dan Oates was not taking many questions.

Apparently, there were still people from the theater at the shopping center. A radio reporter described people hugging, people just standing. With my camera, I wondered if I would take pictures of those people, if we made it into the press conference. Would I be that bold? Would it feel rude? Would I seek it out? I had a long lens. Would I approach them afterward, and ask gently for names? But I didn't find out, because we didn't make it in.

Back to Fish, and they dispersed while I stayed on at the apartment to get some shots and wait for news. Would they detonate? Would they enter the apartment? The Aurora Fire Department, the Aurora Police Department, the Denver Bomb Squad, the Adams County Bomb Squad, ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives). And maybe others I'm missing. This street corner was definitely an interagency affair.

[Aurora Fire Department staging outside James Holmes' apartment.]

When I got there, they had already busted in the windows and looked around inside with cameras. They were moving around the outside of the building, going up and down in the cherry picker. They were switching out firefighters, with new ones suiting up and others dressing down.

[Aurora Fire Department.]

But most everyone was just waiting.

[Using the cherry picker to access the rooftop and to look through the busted window.]

The blinds in Holmes' apartment, free of the glass, moved in and out of the window frame with the breeze, giving the impression of activity within the apartment.

Print and broadcast media clustered on both sides of the street, the photographers claiming spots with a view of the windows. The media waited. The throng was not as dense as I anticipated, but there were representatives from all local media, people in the area who were called on to feed information to national outlets, and several international representatives. I met a man who works for a Dutch newspaper out of New York who had just flown out because a Dutch national was apparently in the theater next door. Another man I met usually works locally but was pushing information to USA Today.

[Aurora Fire Department staff move toward the apartment building next door. Five apartment buildings were evacuated.]

I wasn't sure how the media circus would be. I expected everyone to be cutthroat competitive, very closed or at the very least cliquish, talking only to other people with big credentials. I didn't have any credentials at all. The only agency name I could give was "CU Journalism News Service," which still just sounds like a student organization.

People were remarkably nice.

The turning point for me was when a woman in a sun hat and hiking pants came along asking if anyone needed sunblock. Her press credentials read Reuters. I just went down to the 7-11, she said. Thank God for the 7-11. It was hot, and there was very little shade, and we were all just standing out on the pavement.

And my first thought was, Is it poisoned?

The answer is no. No, journalists--most journalists--are not that cutthroat. And the sunblock was not poisoned. Partly to chastise myself for even thinking that it could be and partly because I realized I was indeed standing out in the sun, I took her up on her offer. I slathered the sunscreen on my face and shoulders.

[Emergency personnel go through bags of material. A reporter told me later he believed these were evidence bags, and labeled as such--I think he said one of his coworkers saw them being loaded into a truck. He didn't know what agency was working with them, though. That gate in front of them was closed very shortly after I asked the public information officer on site what they were doing.]

[ATF canine handler and certified explosives specialist Doug Lambert and ATF public information officer Brad Beyersdorf lead 7-year-old black lab Ostermann away from the apartment building to take a break. Lambert and Ostermann started work at 5 a.m. at the movie theater and at about 7 a.m. at the apartment building.]

It was rewarding, standing on the other side of the police tape, to be able to join other reporters in talking to the ATF public information officer and other willing subjects, in this case about their explosive detection dog. When I asked the public information officer about the men going through the bags as the conversation was breaking up, however, he turned away from me and said nothing, walked away with another man, and when I next looked toward the operation the gate was closed with the men on the other side. I didn't see the public information officer again.

Since nothing seemed to be happening with the apartment, Fish called off our stakeout and I joined the others at a coffee shop to download and submit my photos. Only I didn't have that USB cable, or a CF card reader, and nor did anyone else. I made several attempts to find either, but the university bookstore was apparently closed. I walked into the hospital gift shop and knew almost immediately among the stuffed animals and trinkets that they wouldn't have one. I went back to the car to check to see if by any chance I had had the brilliance months ago to leave one in my camera bag. No luck. And I should mention that the car's battery had died, otherwise I would have been able to just drive somewhere to get one. Fish was charging her phone on a charger her sister-in-law had brought by and the car's battery couldn't take it. In her defense, she wasn't charging it for very long.

Back to the coffee shop, and soon thereafter Fish left to call AAA, and I left to see what was going on with the apartment, which was mostly nothing. Much of the media had taken the lull in activity to retreat to their cars to submit stories on their phones or computers. (I had asked several for a USB cable on my previous trip, to no avail. Cutthroat? Mmm, probably honest.) I joined the few still there, snapped some pictures. Several people were just arriving and trying to get caught up. I met a woman working for Bloomberg who normally reports on health care. They called her up this morning to ask if she could cover this. "Step out of comfort zone," she said, referring to herself, and I realized not all journalists are comfortable waltzing up to Joe Shmoe on the street, or cold-calling someone who may be experiencing something difficult, or covering spot news. Yet they're still journalists. And I felt better.

She'd been at the high school in the morning, outside, with people looking for loved ones coming and going. Trying not to sound too much like a rookie, I asked her how she approached people. "Terribly," she said. "I let the first six people go by." She didn't try to talk to anyone on their way in, feeling that it was unreasonable to ask someone for a minute of their time when they were trying to find someone close to them. She said they almost expected to be approached by the media on their way out, which made it a little easier.

We tried to find out what the wait was all about, what was happening ("Nothing" one cop told us, although I suspect the bomb squads were probably reviewing tape or strategizing or at the very least discussing), an approximate off-record estimate for when they would approach the apartment. There was no public information officer. Information can be hard to get. One officer told us no more information until the next press briefing at 7 p.m. One told us very off the record that they wouldn't be going into the apartment for quite a while. (I guess earlier someone had told the press it would be in two hours, about an hour before we were asking these questions.) There was also word that nothing would happen after dark. Firefighters wouldn't want to fight a fire after dark. Makes sense. The last word I heard was that it could happen today or tomorrow, and that we'd know when they started to close the street.

The AAA guy came. Fish's car started. He tested the battery and suggested she get a new one soon. We picked up Charles and Kat and headed to Fish's brother's house to submit our work.

Air conditioning, high ceilings. No appropriate USB cable. Charles and I drove to a nearby store to buy one. It didn't work. It was for charging, not for data. We drove back, and I bought another one. It worked. Download, choose, write cutlines (captions) as we all watched the 7 p.m. press briefing in the living room, the speakers obviously tired, everyone up for hours and hours, Aurora police chief Dan Oates temporarily losing his New York gruffness and protectiveness to get choked up about his team and the nature of dealing with this tragedy, and after the short briefing Fish sent off the pics posted here and a short bit of text about what the neuroscience halls were like in the morning, and that was that. Somewhere in there pizza arrived and we ate some. At about 9 p.m., we were headed back to Boulder.

There were other things, too. Ethics and fact-checking are tricky in cases like this. Everyone wants information, and everyone wants to push information out. People who have information are protective of it. For example, with what I was trying to do: Find someone who knew the shooter. Why do we care what the shooter was, is like? It matters whether he was gregarious or reclusive, friendly or withdrawn. Is it just our curiosity, or does it actually inform us in some way? I don't know, but I think it helps us to make sense of the situation, or at least to try. It won't necessarily prevent anything similar in the future. Like the guy in the lobby said, there are plenty of people who sit alone. But we still want to know who this guy was.

As for fact-checking, there was a man on the street (literally) who said he had just had beers with the guy a week ago at a bar down the way, and he seemed like a normal guy, and this is so weird. The comments made it into multiple print and broadcast outlets; we heard it on NPR in the evening. But what are the chances that this guy was telling the truth? All accounts had the shooter as a recluse. Beer with an unknown neighbor? Possible. But likely?

The sources with the most information clamped down on them pretty quickly. Outlets spoke extensively with eye-witnesses, but information about police activities came almost exclusively from the two press briefings, and from what we could see. The university told their staff and students to not talk to press. If you hear from the press, tell them you've been instructed to not talk to them. Which again brings up the question of information. How much does the public need to know? And what is (and what should be) the role of the press? There's a line somewhere out there between sensationalism and helpful information. Not all of what the media does, and wants to do, is sensationalism. The public wants to know. And not all media will stop at nothing to get a scoop. Different journalists have different styles, and different limits. If I'm going to follow this niche as a career, I just have to find mine.

Posted by beth at July 23, 2012 6:54 PM

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Right after reading this I came across a similar self-analysis on a NYT blog, thought you might appreciate...


Posted by: KevinA at July 23, 2012 7:31 PM

Great work, Beth. It's always a pleasure to read your pieces.

Posted by: Elijahoodah at July 24, 2012 4:50 AM

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