Dear Sutherland Springs,
When I drove into town last Sunday afternoon, it was still quiet. Just a few hours had passed since the massacre at First Baptist, and only a handful of local journalists were there. By day’s end, dozens more had descended. By Monday, there were hundreds of us — reporters, producers and photographers from all over the world.
The media presence doubled the size of your grieving community, or so it seemed. You couldn’t park at the post office. It was jammed with news vans and satellite trucks, its lawn trampled by a half-dozen tents the big networks set up. You couldn’t get a quiet meal at the local cafe, where waitresses trying to get through their shifts were asked again and again to talk about the friends and family they had just lost.
It was miserably hot, even for Texas. But the gas station was out of sunscreen. We’d bought it all.
It was an invasion. It was too much.
At the prayer vigil Sunday night, mourners clutching candles hugged each other and sobbed. The pictures were beautiful. What you didn’t see was the scrum engulfing your friends and loved ones, photographers and reporters with iPhones jockeying to capture an image that didn’t also include the media melee.
I kept thinking there should be — there must be — a better way to cover a tragedy like this.
Your community is different from a big city like Las Vegas. Certainly the victims there were traumatized by reporters’ constant pressing. Sutherland Springs — three square blocks of modest homes without so much as a stoplight, three square blocks of homes in which nearly every person lost someone — should have been treated with more care.
Because I got there early, I was in front of the Ward family’s house when they got back from the hospital. They were waiting on news from four family members, three kids and their mother, they told me. Sure, I could come inside. Yeah, I could sit down. OK, we’ll tell you what we saw.
Their daughter McKinley introduced me to their dogs, let me hold the newest addition, a puppy named Liyla. Grandma Lupe made me tortillas. Leslie brewed coffee. By midnight Sunday, they’d learned two of the nieces and the girls’ mother were dead. One boy, a 5-year-old shot four times, was still hanging on.
Maybe they opened up because they trusted me, or it was a welcome distraction. Maybe it was just luck and timing. Whatever the reason, I wrote their story sitting at their kitchen table. McKinley kept me company, watching “Meet Me in St. Louis” by my side.
I decided to choose my interactions carefully. But I was still there, a stranger, an outsider, my presence an intrusion.
The second day, from the comfort of the Wards’ porch, I watched as the family turned away at least a dozen reporters. Most I didn’t know. Some were former colleagues or competitors. For a moment I felt triumphant — I got the story — and in the next moment, sickened by my own arrogance.
Eventually, the media pressure began to weigh even on me. I did a few on-the-ground interviews before rejecting the rest. It was too stressful. I expressed my growing disgust with a few other journalists, and many agreed with me. One, a national television reporter, seemed confused.
“Everyone has been so welcoming,” he told me. Welcoming? People were holed up in their homes, loathing how a simple trip to the Dollar General would put them in our paths. Some people were downright rude — and for very good reason.
I am routinely crammed into press gaggles and competing for interviews. Yet I was absolutely overwhelmed in Sutherland Springs. I was sickened. I can’t imagine how you, a grieving community, must have felt.
You’re more than a hashtag.
The massacre at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs was the worst mass shooting in modern Texas history. Like Las Vegas before it, the number of casualties alone makes it an event that necessitates coverage. Oftentimes, explaining what happened can prompt others to lend a helping hand or spur needed change, like improvements in public policy. Sometimes, for victims, telling their stories can be cathartic.
As journalists, our role as observers and investigators in times of tragedy is important. But so is our empathy and our humanity. As a profession, we must have a conversation about how best to chronicle horrors like this. We can do better.
To the families who opened up to us and put up with me, thank you. The media horde, myself included, owes you an apology. I hope you’ll soon find a quiet moment in which to mourn.
Lauren McGaughy is a Dallas Morning News reporter based in Austin.