Thursday, March 1, 2012

Portrait of a 21st Century Journalist

8:09 a.m. Text message from boss: Shooting at Chardon High. Get in ASAP.

8:12 a.m. Are you serious?! Anyone get hurt? Heading out now.

Jump in shower, oh my God, shooting ... shooting. Chardon. How is this possible? Hot water gets hotter, shampooing, conditioning ... I'll bet every news crew in the greater Cleveland area is already. I wonder if anyone's hurt? Turn heat higher, lean forward, water streaming down back. I look at my knees ... I stare at my knees and I know this is big, but it hasn't sunk in yet. I need something normal, so I look at my knees. I send out a prayer to the Universe ... Give me strength to do this the best way I can.

Dress, car ... I play my iPod instead of turning on the radio. I can't listen, I need to get in the zone before I get there, I know from the moment I arrive, the noise will flood me and it won't leave for a long, long time. How do I get in? The back roads, Cassandra. Take the back roads. I see police lights, I see police cars, I see news crews. I see cars lined up every side street. I find a spot. I see the middle school. I see a line that looks a mile long of people, parents, waiting .... waiting in the cold for their kids. News crews swarming the area, CNN, Fox 8, ABC, CBS, AP, NPR, Plain Dealer ... me. Me. How do I compete with this? Before I know it, the carnal adrenaline hits, the heart races. I pull out my video camera, I shoot ... I just start shooting everything, parents standing, talking, reuniting with their children, clutching them. It's all I see, parents touching their children as though they'll never not touch them again. Holding onto their arms, ruffling their hair, crying, clinging, hands on shoulders, as though afraid to break connection. It's foreign to me somehow, but insanely familiar at the same time. I take deep breathes, I realize I'm shivering ... I didn't dress for this. I see the big wig networks ... they're pushing in, they're prying, they're trying to get more from the Lieutenant. He sees me and nods ... we're the community newspaper, we're the heart. This is our backyard. I have to get the info out. I have to get as much information as possible out. That's my job. We're small, but this is our community. This is us ... this is our job. I realize this and I let loose.

 Phone comes out, Tweeting, Facebooking. Small news brief from lieutenant starts, I home in, others swarm over, like moths to flames, microphones, huge cameras, lens, note pads, digital cameras, flip cams. I tape. I tape and as I tape, I tweet on my phone. Five victims, not four. One shooter, in police custody. All we know at this time. I tweet, I facebook, I read other posts, I talk to some parents. I touch base with my boss, my co-workers. Hot coffee, thank God. Someone brings hot coffee. I suddenly realize I can't feel my fingers, my face is numb from the wind. Superintendent spots me, Hey Cassandra ... he says softly, as though he's in shock, but happy to see a familiar face. It takes me aback. I say, "Hi Joe," he keeps walking. His face now solemn again, bewildered, lost, found, scared, strong. The media swarms in, asks for updates, I move closer to try and stand on the outskirts and overhear, I tape. I tweet, Facebook.

The balance, balancing rumors and accuracy, immediacy, responsibility, competition, the drive, the hunger, the adrenaline, the shock, the overwhelming want to prove myself, to this right, to do right by the community, to help, to get as much out as I can, to compete with the big guys ... to prove it's possible. We pull our resources. I realize we've got an edge most of these guys do not. We've got long-time build relationships with these authorities, we've got a lot of 'Off the record' stuff, we've got a lot of "on the record but anonymous" confirmations, we've got rapports with people that are deeper than anything I'd see at any other publication ... and here we are, a community paper. We break a few things, we hear rumors of his name. We confirm it with people, they aren't allowed to be named. But the public is hungry for information, starving for updates. We give them what they want, but I try to keep my eye on the ball. Facts, information, reactions, testimonies, backlash ... there is always someone who hates us, there is always someone who is going to hate what I'm doing, who is going to judge every moment, who is out there while I'm in here, who hasn't a clue what this is like, ... the 21st century journalist ...

Update, one student has passed .... two in critical condition. Tweet, Facebook. Get names? Do students know who was shot? Hear names, check other tweets, other newscasts. Talk to other journalists. We're competing, but yet, we're on the same page. We share info ... the nice ones anyway. The one's who "get it" the ones who see the bigger picture. News. Facts. Information. Fast. We talk, we share, we look into it, we confirm, we throw away, we post, we write, we take pictures. Sensational journalism someone says, I ignore it. I feel the heat inside, I feel the adrenaline. But sensational is going to always be thrown around in tragedy. Everyone has different approaches. But getting reactions, getting quotes, getting information from those who say they were there, what they saw ... people want to know. But balance, balance, accuracy, sensitivity.

I look at parents, I look at crying kids. I start to feel things ... I stop myself. I put it on lock down. Not now, later ... not now. I don't know a single person, but I feel. I feel. Then I stop, I refocus. Facts. Hours pass, updates. Victims are status quo. Who was he? What was he like? The public, the state, the country wants to know. Who was he? Hoards of media push through, find students who knew him. We hold back a bit. I decide some of this is OK to repost, to attribute. To share information, to use others' information. We don't ALL need to push through. We don't ALL need to bother these kids for the sake of competition. But the drive is still there, make no mistake. It's always there. We Facebook search, we talk to some people, we get a feel for Danny. We post pics, we let the public tell the rest. We let them comment, we let them interact. We let the social media do its thing .... its living and breathing thing. It's changed the face of news and the world, it's a breeding ground for news to surpass even us as well as a dangerous stream for rumors. Weeding through it all is key ... yet we're all learning. We're all adapting, we're all trying to figure this shit out.

I get back, i write. I write with everything I have in me. I question myself. But I write. Get the hard facts out Cassandra. You can't throw in emotion right now, you can't narrate. Get facts out, updates. Keep up with the bigwigs, they're gonna get ahead no matter what ... but stay with their pace right now until as much info is out.

Pride of work exhausts me. Pride of work, job responsibility, everything that's been embedded in me, trained in is at work. Everything that about this industry now, the digital age, the era that has transformed life and the world and my industry as we know it. It's here. It's now. I have the tools, but I don't have enough resources. I can't be everywhere at once. Co-workers help post, help write. Help cover. We spread out where we can. We try to hit up what angles we can. I feel lost. I feel the day weighing on me. I feel the sponge in me begin its soaking. I feel wrecked and it's slowly bleeding me.

I'm obsessing now, I'm reading tweets, i'm caught up in the media frenzy ... I want it to be perfect. I want it to be perfect in the middle of chaos. I'm unrealistic. I'm hard on myself. But I want it to be right. We break more news ... we find out about a detention hearing. We know everyone will find out anyway, and will be there regardless.

Rumors trickle out about a second death, but no confirmation. 12:45 a.m. I hit the pillow ... exhausted, yet restless. Sleep is not restful. I wake up early. I have to get in. Update stories, reports of second student pronounced brain dead. Another press conference. Facebook, tweet. Who was this kid? What was his personality? My God, we still have other stories to edit. we still have a second, small shopper paper to put out. I still have other stories to look over, we still have our main paper to lay out for Thursday and proof on Wednesday. But the shooting is where it all is. More press conferences ... we hear rumors of a third victim, we all already assumed this as of Monday afternoon ... hearing brain swelling, surgery. When you get life flighted to Cleveland Clinic ... you know it's not good. But still,  you don't expect it fully. You hold out, the hope in you. But then the news hits. A third. The family issues a statement. It's canned. They're always canned. How can they not be? How can the family really want to say anything? How can they wrap their minds around it? I can't imagine. No, I can't allow myself to imagine. I have to keep working. I turn it off. I get texts from concerned friends both days. I answer quickly. I get comments on Facebook ... supportive. they carry me. I feel completely alone. I gravitate to other journalists I know in the industry. Old co-workers.

They help carry me, too. But I feel lost, like I'm doing this alone in some ways. The 21 century  journalist, single woman ... I have cheerleaders, but not "that" cheerleader. And in that moment, I realize how much I miss having one. I put this aside. Now's not the time. I update. Press conference, the gunman is there. Slight, expressionless, calm, "yes sir" ... "I do, sir." Nothing else. Nothing. Nothing about him stands out. Not like some of his Facebook pictures. He could blend in anywhere. He's just a kid. His slight frame ... he's just a kid. And look what he did. He destroyed three lives, their families' lives and an entire community. A kid.

I shake these thoughts. I refocus. What now? His background. I profile him. We try to balance. We do story on healing as well, we talk about upcoming vigils. We talk about the hard facts, too. Another 14 hour day. I try to find some down time. I walk my dog. He's been so cooped up. But I'm on the phone, checking info. Filling friends in. Answering concerned texts and calls from people I didn't even expect.

They help. I feel lost and alone, deserted in some ways, critiqued even, second guessing my instincts ... but supported in other ways. I wonder if I'll crack. But the support and positive feedback trumps any doubt. I post videos, I follow news feeds. I update stories. I edit others ... 1 a.m. It all hits. I finally hits. I lose it. I cry for over an hour. I feel the weight of everything hit ... of feeling like everything I was trying to carry, some of it on my own, hit. I miss having a cheerleader, having those arms, having that voice to calm me down, having that person who "gets it" .... who gets me, who knows what this is like, who gets the industry, who knows how hard it can be not to be affected, to have everything be put in perspective to a point where things people are bitching about, people are posting about, seem completely ridiculous ... and trying to keep THAT in perspective. Trying NOT to project. Trying to be sensitive to those things anyway. Trying to remember that not everyone understands. And while I'm here, so many others are facebooking about drinking, about a sunny day in another state, about classes, about trivial irritations, about TV shows.

I laid there. I broke. cried, I cried hard. I wanted those kind of understanding arms around me then like I haven't in months and months. I talk out loud for a bit, feeling better. I finally fall asleep at 2 a.m. It's restless. Four hours of sleep. I'm up. I edit some more. I proof the paper. I can barely focus. I'm in a haze. I decide to dedicate the rest of the night to relaxation in SOME way. I succeed in waves, but something inside of me. I weariness never feels rest. I know I'll have to write about this. I know I'll have to purge it here. I know I won't edit it. I won't sensor it and I'll be terrified to post it. I know all this days ago. More information floods in, records have been released. We update information. Facebook, Tweet. Upload new stories, pictures, videos. Thursday ... today. The march. Students return. They are facing the school. I get there. It's overwhelming. But the support amazes me. My heart fills, but I keep it at bay. I must talk to some people, but I can't push. This is their moment, this is huge. They're re-entering a place that doesn't symbolize safety anymore. They're entering a place that has housed tragedy. This time, I DO let myself feel a bit. I do let my heart bleed a little and let it resonate in my tone of voice, in my approach. Quiet, careful, I gauge people. I sense the energies that want nothing to do with me.

I don't blame them. I watch TV crews push, prod. I stay back on the edges. I find a few, I talk, I let them talk. I record. I tweet. I facebook. I shoot video. I'm freezing again. I walk with them a way's. I see the high school sign, donned with candles, teddy bears, red ribbons, photos of victims, note to victims. I soak it in a moment. I share it with the Facebook world. I move on. Phone always out, notepad and pen ready, video recorder in palm. the digital age journalist.

This is the first story I feel "good" about. I take time, I feel my back and neck burning. My scoliosis kicking in from shivering in the cold. I get back and write, while checking for updates. Several other events go on all day. we have to prioritize our coverage. It's not easy. The journalist in me wants to be  every where at once. Wants to touch it all, breathe it all, report it all. But I know I can't. So we fall back on sharing information, on live feeds, on using media to help media. Gunman is charged. That puts a dent in other things, but we put it together. First march to healing story done. I feel good about it, but still weighed down. I'm in a daze I can't shake. I haven't been able to shake it since Monday. So many stories left to tell, beautiful ones, hard ones, tragic ones, breathtaking ones and hopeful ones. The others will eventually leave. And only a few of us will remain to tell the stories of the picking up of pieces, of the days of moving forward ... of justice. They'll come swarming back eventually, but we'll have had our finger on this pulse, as we've had long before them. We'll still be here and I'll still be trying to do my best. I'll still be searching for that balance ... embracing the tools we now have while trying not to let them drown me.

The 21st century journalist.

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  1. Understand and empathize. Redundant, I guess, but you know.

    1. Yeah ... I know. But still, it's never redundant. So thanks.