Reporting a Tragedy

IMG_1509 A gunman killed six students at my alma mater last Saturday morning before shooting himself in the head. My wife, who also went to UCSB, read the news on her phone while we were in bed Saturday morning. We were crushed. Like anyone else who reads news like that and has some small connection to the tragedy, we felt like there was nothing we could do.

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That feeling festered for half-an-hour as I got up and read news, watched the killer's chilling YouTube videos, and tried to figure out exactly what had happened.  The details were still emerging, but the general story had been sussed out by the cops and by the diligent reporters at the scene. At some point, as I was reading, a familiar process took hold. A bell went off. I could drive up to Santa Barbara.

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It sounded like an awful thing to do for a few reasons. First -- and let's face it, this is how we think -- it would be a logistical hassle and a huge expenditure of physical and emotional energy. I had plans, I had a week ahead of me to deal with, and I had a full plate of stories. It also felt like an awful thing to do because it was so clearly exploitative. If I went up, it would be to look for a story, a point of entry, and even though I consider myself an ethical and compassionate writer, that felt dirty. For a few minutes, my feelings about a senseless shooting lived side by side with my ambition to get the story. Slowly, as always happens, that ambition -- or, if I'm being more generous to myself, a desire to gain a more complete understanding of something awful -- pushed away the bystander in me. I start daring myself, castigating myself, questioning my dedication to being a journalist. I don't do well with peer pressure.

So I went.

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Isla Vista, the town adjacent to campus where the shootings occurred, was quieter than I expected. I got there around noon on Saturday, so many students in this all-student town were no doubt still inside, waking up, mourning, talking with their parents. Those students that were on the streets, though, were under a full-fledged assault by reporters. There were dozens of reporters in this small town, and since there were nine separate crime scenes, they were rushing madly around, grabbing interviews, putting on austere faces as they went live. Whenever I've seen this feeding frenzy in the past I've thought it distasteful and indelicate. I was there for the same reason the other reporters were, so it's hard to judge. I was also the beneficiary of a fairly complete story before I set out, which was due in large part to the reporters working the scene. But I'm sure as shit glad I'm a magazine writer and not a daily journo. Ambition be damned: I vowed to be there, soak in the heavy atmosphere, and only approach locals when it felt natural to do so.

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In the meantime, I turned my attention to a group of people I didn't mind harassing: the journalists themselves. I spoke with about ten reporters and photographers, some of them at great length. I was curious how they handled this kind of situation, whether they could treat it as a job or whether it stayed with them. I found most to be ... well, human. They were doing their job, they had to have that fierce instinct, and they took no pleasure in being insensitive or brutish during someone else's tragedy.

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I spotted one TV reporter camped out in front of an apartment building. I stopped and chatted with her. She looked tired, and when she told me that she had a tip that they were about to wheel bodies out of the building she was watching, she looked sad. Sure enough, inside the parking lot's automatic gate were two white vans, nondescript but official-looking. As we talked, more reporters started showing up. Word had spread. In half-an-hour there were about two dozen photographers and news types gathered around.

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Because of the gate and the position of the vans, there wasn't much of a view of the lot from the front. But a parking lot with a high wooden fence abutted the lot. It was the employee lot for a row of shops, and two Latino guys in aprons were hanging out at the back door of one of the shops. They were making faces, laughing at the news crews, interupting news reports with unscripted and uninvited cameos. It was funny, even amid the gravity of the situation. I went and chatted them up a little bit. They were brothers, Alan and Ivan, and I asked what they thought of the scene. Alan's answer surprised me.

"It's disrespectful," he said. "I know they're doing their job, but look."

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He motioned to the fence. Photographers were standing on chairs, on cars, on the fence itself to get a clear view. The fence was bowing under their weight. And sure enough, they started wheeling out bodies. There were three -- this was Elliot Rodger's house, and these were the young men he'd stabbed to death before setting out on his deadly drive. Then the gate opened, the vans pulled out, and twenty minutes later, we were gone.