Breaking News and Beyond – A Virtual Conversation
On October 17, 2015, three award-winning Texas journalists participated in keynote presentation at the annual Headliners Foundation Mike Quinn Awards Luncheon at the Headliners Club. Preceding that live presentation event, the journalists engaged in a virtual conversation by e-mail, which was moderated by Headliners Foundation vice chair John Lumpkin that focused on similar questions asked at the luncheon.
The Virtual Conversation:
Lumpkin: Where were you when you first heard about the breaking news stories you covered and what were your first thoughts? What happened next?
I was sitting next to my wife, Nancy Flores, a features reporter at the Statesman, watching a SXSW showcase by a Mexican singer in a beautiful, atmospheric church a few blocks from the Mohawk (a live music venue for the Festival). Call it luck or coincidence or fate, but we had both a reporter and photographer covering the showcase at the Mohawk at the moment of the crash. Jay Janner was standing on the Mohawk’s balcony when the car plowed through pedestrians on the street below and swung his camera to get the first and most vivid shots of the crash. Both he and music writer Peter Blackstock sent a group text to the Features crew covering SXSW, which Nancy received on her cell. The scope of the crash wasn’t clear yet, but you could feel the urgency in their texts (the number of exclamation points was the first clue) and we jumped on our scooter and sped over.
We had no idea what to expect, but we arrived to see masses of dazed people pouring out of the Mohawk, the street littered with sneakers and clothes and wounded patrons, Mohawk employees screaming at people to leave the area and the first cops arriving to secure the scene. In a word, chaos. We ran into Peter, who had transitioned into crime reporter mode and had already conducted a couple of interviews.
The three of us huddled on the street and came up with a quick plan: Peter dictated those first interviews to an editor at home (the crash occurred after midnight, long after editors had gone home). Nancy and I interviewed more patrons and injured festivalgoers and fed updates to the web desk while a video producer joined us on the street. We stayed on the scene until the first Austin PD press conference at about 3 a.m. and then hustled back to the paper to write up a first draft. As the sun came up, we put the finishing touches on what was hopefully a coherent narrative, given everybody’s bleariness and lack of sleep.
On Monday night of that week, I was watching the Real Housewives of Somewhere or Other when my husband shouted: There might be Ebola in Dallas! I looked at him and then looked back at the TV, but he was smug that he was breaking news to me, for once. I looked at his phone and it had pinged with an alert from NBC5 (the Dallas-Fort Worth NBC affiliate). Sure enough, there was a suspected Ebola patient at Presbyterian hospital. But what did that mean? In my experience as a medical doctor and former disease detective with the federal government, I said: it’s more likely the patient has malaria and typhoid.
The next day the newsroom was abuzz with news about this suspected Ebola patient. Malaria and typhoid – both diseases I’ve treated and am very familiar with – were still top of my differential diagnosis, but I did my due diligence and called nearly everyone I knew at the CDC to find out what they knew. Most didn’t know much about the case, but one person texted back something like: Not sure exactly what’s happening but team is on their way to Dallas. So that was it. That was the first moment that I thought this was actually Ebola. From my experience, the CDC would not deploy a team to Dallas unless they already knew the test was positive because at that point there had been so many suspect cases across the country that had not instigated an investigation.
My first thoughts were: Holy crap, why does everything happen in Dallas first? But a part of me was grateful that if this was going to happen anywhere in the States, it should happen where I work because we’d have the opportunity to cover the story thoroughly and responsibly.
Actually, I was not yet working in the Rio Grande Valley when La Joya’s police chief was found dead in his patrol SUV. Jose Del Angel died two months before I started at KRGV-TV. I knew the initial details of his death through newsroom chatter. Many of my colleagues did not believe he killed himself, though that is what the Hidalgo County sheriff had ruled. Conspiracy theories about his death started and then slowly fizzled during the next three years. In 2014, Del Angel came back to life, so-to-speak. My news director found a never-before-released autopsy report. It was filed away among documents left behind by a reporter who had just left our news team. That single report is what sparked our investigation.
Lumpkin: We call our discussion “Breaking News and Beyond,” so let’s explore the “Beyond” part. For you, how did the coverage transition to larger issues than the immediate circumstances and why?
The timing was interesting since the print edition wouldn’t hit the streets for about 36 hours after crash, so we had to straddle between spinning forward and not missing the big headline/moment. Having that long to work on the first day stories also was a chance for them to be more crafted than they usually would be on a breaking news event. In most breaking news situations, something happens in the middle of the day so you spend most of your time just scrambling to catch up. In this case, all the scrambling happened overnight so by the time editors came in around 6 or 7 a.m., we were already in spin-ahead mode and knew we were going to be marshaling our forces.
Big question that emerged: was the festival getting too big, too out of control? A lot of our follow-up coverage was based around that.
Technology was a huge part of our response, from the GroupMe texts that alerted us to the crash moments afterward to EyeFi cards our photographer used to transmit photos without losing valuable time whipping out a laptop and downloading and editing. Also, the remote online tools that we used to publish web updates the first night, allowing our web staff to get news online from home without losing valuable time driving into the paper.
This happened instantly. In the month before Thomas Eric Duncan was diagnosed with Ebola, The Morning News had been writing about a local doctor, Kent Brantly, who became infected with Ebola while caring for patients in West Africa. We wrote breaking news and enterprise stories about Brantly. As part of those stories, I wrote about the mathematical models that were being used to predict the likelihood of Ebola spreading to the U.S. and specifically to Dallas (chances were low, the experts said).
When Thomas Eric Duncan’s test came back positive, we immediately went into breaking news reporting and enterprise reporting mode – we did both at the same time. We provided our readers with timely updates of the investigation while digging deep into how the hospital was operating, what the CDC was doing and how worried we should be about the further spread of the virus.
For me, the “beyond” is really why I’m here. I had no ties to the death and absolutely no ties to the police chief or the initial investigation. That worked for me. I was able to look at the moments leading up to Del Angel’s death with “fresh eyes.” I wasn’t swayed by local politics or policing. I asked questions and demanded answers. Our investigation started with simple information requests to our local sheriff’s office. When the sheriff’s office refused to release information, I was forced to look elsewhere – the FBI, the Texas Rangers, the District Attorney. I tracked down family members who provided photos. I connected with his estranged wife turned widow, who took a lot of the blame, publicly, for his death. During our digging, there were several moments when I physically felt unsafe. I had sources telling me I was investigating something that should be left alone. I had people saying, “So-and-so” is not going to like that Del Angel’s death is news again.” It didn’t help that the sheriff who ruled Del Angel’s death a suicide is now in federal prison – guilty of money laundering. Then there was the challenge of bringing to life all of those documented details. We hit a creative nerve with the telling of this investigation. It worked, I think.
Lumpkin: Jeremy has mentioned that technology played a major role in the Statesman’s response. Let’s explore that by framing it this way – how has the digital era changed the way you and your news organization covered the story when you started out in journalism?
New technology has obviously allowed us to get information out more quickly and immediately through tools like Twitter, but the biggest impact has been in our ability to present stories online. New programs and tools have allowed us to create some truly beautiful and impactful stories online, and the use of data visualizations has opened up new doors for creative presentation of information. As much as digital has been a challenge to newspaper economics, it has allowed the product to look better than it ever has, hopefully pulling more readers into our work. It also allows us to be more transparent by doing things like embedding source documents into online stories. And with programs like Shorthand, we can create immersive online packages in hours as opposed to weeks.
Well, I’ve only recently started out in journalism, but our digital-first approach had us making Ebola explanatory videos, hosting live Twitter chats and other live chats on different social media platforms. It made us think about reader engagement all the time and allowed us to answer reader’s concerns and questions in real time. Our Ebola landing page www.dallasnews.com/ebola aggregated all the information in one place including live updates on the number of people being actively monitored for Ebola and a timeline of events.
An obvious example is the way we submitted our public information requests. I no longer have to submit them in writing either in-person or via snail mail. Having the digital tools available to request multiple pages of public information sped up the process AND it made retrieving it more affordable. Authorities were able to place all of the requested documents on a CD – which made the cost of my public information requests – free.
Lumpkin: Upon further reflection, what might you or your news organization done in addition to or different from what you did?
We hit some stone walls in profiling the driver Rashad Owens (many folks close to him refused to speak with us). We heard from some readers when we asked for the public’s help in identifying victims in our photographer’s shots of the accident. While the request generated good leads, some readers felt the request was made a little too flippantly and could have been done more thoughtfully.
More videos, more live Twitter chats. There was big demand for this and we could have done more.
I would have promoted our online database of information. We worked so hard to generate online content. It was essentially the “other half” of our news report. We may have focused too much on TV and not enough on web.
Lumpkin: What is the most lasting impact of your coverage? Perhaps put another way, if someone comes across your coverage 10 years from now through an online search, what will she or he think about it?
Our most impactful piece may have been our one-year anniversary piece, in which we tracked down almost every victim from the remarkable photos Jay Janner took in the moments after the crash. Their stories gave texture to the event in a way we couldn’t in the immediate aftermath and is an example of the benefit of revisiting such traumatic events.
The landing page continues to be useful as new information emerges about the cost of the investigation etc. It’s a valuable and lasting resource for future readers who wish to look back on the events of last fall.
You’d have to ask such a person. Even so, I will say the Del Angel investigation became my initial calling card for viewers. They knew my television station and I are fully capable and willing to “dig deeper.” I’ve done a number of in-depth, exhaustive investigations since then. It’s also improved/strengthened “sources.” A lot of our initial KRGV investigation (into the Del Angel death) was founded on “sourced” information.
Please activate the video below to preview the news stories that are discussed by the three journalists for context of the journalists’ “virtual conversation” above. The introduction for the event presentation was produced by KVUE-TV of Austin. The journalists’ live discussion at the Quinn Luncheon then follows the intro. A link to the full live event is provided at the bottom of this page.
Jeremy Schwartz, reporter for the Austin American-Statesman, and part of a team that provided comprehensive breaking news coverage of the fatal auto crash at the South by Southwest Festival.
Melissa Correa, reporter for KRGV-TV, Weslaco, whose work on the shooting death of the police chief of La Joya, Texas, won the 2014 Freedom of Information Award of the Texas Associated Press Broadcasters.
Dr. Seema Yasmin, medical doctor, professor and reporter for The Dallas Morning News, who provided expert perspective for the newspaper’s coverage of the Ebola crisis that won a Headliners Silver Showcase Award.
For more details about the participants and their organizations’ awards and a complete video of the live presentation on October 17, click here.