Journalists are used to covering tragedy; it’s what we do — alongside reporting on school board meetings, festivals, budget proposals, regional development, high schools sports, abuses of power, your kid’s ingenious idea and a multitude of other events and things, both mundane and extraordinary. We flock to train wrecks, homicide scenes and flooding aftermath, and we chronicle in heartbreaking detail what it’s like for someone to lose a child, a spouse, a parent, a home or a business.
We do this to record the human experience, to right perceived wrongs and to attempt to make sense of the world for ourselves and for others — as well as to satisfy curiosity, earn a paycheck and, yes, to sell papers or attract viewers. But the tragedies are usually someone else’s or possibly a shared community loss, the way 9/11 felt for journalists working around the country, particularly those in New York and Washington.
The targeted shooting at the Capital Gazette building in Annapolis last week, however, was personal — both for those of us who knew the victims and their colleagues, and for those who work in the industry or are most closely affiliated with it: politicians, police, P.R. folks.
At The Sun, which is owned by the Baltimore Sun Media Group along with the Capital Gazette publications (The Capital, The Maryland Gazette, the Bowie Blade-News, the Crofton-West County Gazette and Capital Style magazine), many of us first found out something was happening when a handful of officers appeared in the lobby of our building on Calvert Street. They came as a precaution, to sweep for danger in case the Annapolis shooting was part of some larger attack.
Searching for details, reporters and editors immediately did what they do for any other story: run out the door or turn to the phones, to social media and, in this case, to Fox News, which ran a live feed of the scene in Annapolis. We saw the 2:43 p.m. tweet from a Capital Gazette intern’s account — “Active shooter 888 Bestgate please help us” — and the replies, many from news media like us asking if he was OK, if he could talk, if he could explain for their audiences what was happening inside his newsroom.
They were the same kinds of probing, pleading, parasitic tweets we send to others in the race to acquire and disseminate information. People called our newsroom for details, but we were still gathering them ourselves. There was a sense that the snake had swallowed its tail.
It took forever for official word to come from authorities, but unofficial sources — which we couldn’t use for our own reporting, but were terrified by nonetheless — were confirming multiple fatalities within a half an hour of 2:33 p.m., the time police would later say Jarrod Ramos killed five Capital Gazette staffers and wounded two others on Thursday, June 28.
For many in our media family, this felt like a firefighter coming home to find their own house on fire or an officer learning that it was their own precious child who went missing. There were no longer any degrees of separation between us and our country’s shamefully frequent mass shootings: We know someone who died in one.
On my desk right now, I have a handwritten note from an occasional op-ed writer expressing her condolences (I edit the op-ed page), and a copy of Tuesday’s paper, which happens to be folded into quarters, so that Rob Hiaasen’s picture smiles up at me from above the fold, accompanying a story about his memorial service held the night before. He was an editor and columnist at The Capital for many years and a feature reporter at The Sun for years before that. I met him when I joined the paper in late 1999, and we had kept in touch sporadically ever since.
I learned of his death in my living room before it was public, from my husband who was covering the incident as a Wall Street Journal reporter based in Baltimore.
And now, the Wall Street Journal and many other news organizations have offered to help in any way they can, by providing staff or resources to put out the various Capital Gazette publications.
Journalists from The Chicago Tribune, Virginian-Pilot and Allentown Morning Call — sister publications under our shared parent company, Tronc — already have been helping out for days alongside Sun staffers; former Sun editors have volunteered to come out of retirement to supplement the workforce; NPR has committed one of its editors (a former Sun editor); and this week, the New York Times lent us back reporter Erica Green, who covered education for The Sun before being wooed away.
The kindness is overwhelming in this business known for cutthroat competition.
I wonder what those who died would have made of all this. It’s a cardinal rule of journalism that you’re not supposed to be part of the story. You don’t intervene or interfere; you observe, recount and analyze. But then a 38-year-old with a grudge and a gun takes away your options, and suddenly you and your colleagues and your families and friends are the story. You fill the news pages and programs and the Facebook feeds of all your journalist friends, many of whom process their pain by writing about it.
I imagine they would have been humbled by the attention, proud of their coworkers and loved ones, and terribly, profoundly sad.
As I was finishing up this column today at 2:33 p.m., on the one-week anniversary of their deaths, The Sun’s newsroom and newsrooms across the world observed a moment of silence to honor Capital Gazette editorial page editor Gerald Fischman, 61; assistant editor and columnist Rob Hiaasen, 59; sportswriter John McNamara, 56; sales assistant Rebecca Smith, 34; and community correspondent Wendi Winters, 65.
And then, we all got back to work.
It’s what we do.
Tricia Bishop is The Sun's deputy editorial page editor. Her column runs every other Friday. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @triciabishop.