Oh boy, I sure got treated to some excellent entertainment this last April Fool’s Day.
No, none of the staff here at The Northern Light got pranked in a particularly hilarious manner, much to my dismay. However, an emergency response exercise was held at the Beatrice McDonald Hall to train Alaska’s first responders in responding to a potential terrorist threat on campus.
The Northern Light saw this as an excellent opportunity to cover the event as a fake breaking news scenario for a training on covering breaking news. I’m not going to share exactly what was reported by the staff at the end of the event, but let’s just say a lot of blood, sweat and tears made it into the final pieces.
I accompanied my host George in his camera bag, occasionally popping my head out to see the action. I have an eyewitness account of what happened.
Here’s the play by play.
The purpose of the exercise was a bit undermined when our executive editor warned us a month in advance. To be fair, all we knew in advance was this:
– Be there before 8 a.m.
– Charge your camera’s batteries beforehand, because you — George and I — are the videographer.
– Muffins and pizza will be provided.
That last tidbit was enough to get my host out of bed and in the office before 8 a.m. After Kelly showed up, she looked shocked when we asked what story we would be breaking. She told us this was just a normal TNL breakfast meeting! Nothing’s going on on-campus!
An obvious ruse, but we played along. Soon enough, 30 minutes after we showed up, the office got a phone call about gunshots and police activity at the Beatrice McDonald Hall. We all ran (or speed-walked, in George’s case — he lacks stamina) over to the scene.
This being a simulation, the gunshots hadn’t actually been fired yet when we arrived. We were a few minutes early. In keeping with the spirit of the exercise, I attributed this to a psychic premonition on my part. Journalism students take note: that’s a good skill to have.
Of course, we naturally heard gunshots a few minutes later. The game was afoot for the police, but again, in keeping with the simulation, we at TNL decided to wait two or three minutes so as to have a more realistic response to the scenario. It didn’t stop George from recording the police and FBI entering the building with huge assault rifles that I can only assume were probably fake as well.
A few moments later, a few “victims” were escorted out by the cops. The game was finally afoot for us. It took some effort to get near them because of the escorts, but some of the reporters were able to get in and talk to them. My host decided to keep his distance and try and get some shots of the building’s inside as the cops cleared it out.
The victims were then escorted to the Rasmuson Hall for questioning, along with a few therapy dogs to help them calm down. This was a prime distraction for George to get away from the building and follow the victims.
Here’s the first huge lesson in reporting news scenarios like this: victims don’t want to talk to you if you’re a vulture trying to pry information. If you decide to help them out or comfort them first, they’ll be much more willing to help you out.
While many of our team’s reporter’s went in and discussed the incident with the victims, George saw an FBI agent in between questionings and saw an opportunity. In a calm, organic manner, he approached her and asked her some questions. She reiterated what we already knew: there’s an active shooter situation on campus, and the cops are clearing the building out.
We spent the next few minutes wandering between the Rasmuson and the Beatrice McDonald, juggling the two situations and scenarios and getting some footage of each. A lot of the cops we talked to told us they didn’t have any information, but a police scanner we overheard clued us in otherwise.
Here’s huge lesson two: verify everything. When police are investigating a massive crime scene, there’s a lot that even they don’t know. A lot of the information that does become available has to get filtered by, say, a PR person so that it can be presented to the media in an orderly and verified fashion.
About 20 minutes later, a press conference was called by the chief of the University Police Department Brad Munn, as well as Chancellor Tom Case. We didn’t realize it when the chief said it, but the most important information was revealed immediately:
Five dead including the shooter. Sixteen injured.
Huge lesson three: the most important question on every reader’s mind when there’s a mass shooting is not who the shooter is, or whether or not campus is closed — though if you’re a particularly lazy and antisocial person, the latter tidbit might be more important — it’s, “are my friends and family safe?”
The statistics of the incident should have been front and center when we produced our media after the press conference. Even I, with my divine brain slug mental prowess, neglected to remind George that the first line of his video probably should have been how many casualties.
It was a stressful start to a day that should’ve been full of jests and japes, but it taught the entire staff several important lessons about covering this kind of thing.
As my audience, though, let me impart some wisdom to you: when something like this happens, don’t believe the first thing you read. Verify that information. There are many stories of sloppy reporters getting a name wrong and implicating someone innocent.
Don’t be that guy.
RESISTANCE IS FUTILE. EMBRACE THE SEAWOLF SLUG.