Here’s how you cover a big story like the massacre in Las Vegas.
1. Stay ready for all hell to break loose. An editor called at 7 a.m. on Monday, asked “Can you go to Vegas?” and in under two hours I was on the plane. My suitcase stays half-packed and my cache of cords and chargers stays replenished.
2. Move first, then figure out the details. If you forget a toothbrush or whatever, get one later. Book a hotel and reserve a car in the air once the in-flight Wi-Fi kicks in. The one thing you can’t buy is more time. I summoned Lyft, dashed through the airport and took off before I applied one speck of makeup on Monday. (A treat for everyone else on board, no doubt).
3. Get as close as you can as fast as you can. Especially with a crime scene as big as the one in Las Vegas, police barricades will likely expand. The highway exit was blocked and roads near the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino were closed in the hours after a gunman opened fire from his 32nd floor hotel room. I figured out a Plan B, then a Plan C and D to be able to get in position — without breaking any laws. I never cross police lines or disobey orders from authorities.
4. Find the people whose stories should be told, and if they feel like it, invite them to share. Connecting with sources on parachute duty, as we call it, is an inexact science. This time, approaching folks with cowboy boots and rolling suitcases seemed like a good bet, and that’s how I met a couple from Nova Scotia who came to Vegas to celebrate their 25th anniversary. “This had been the best trip,” the bridegroom said the day after nearly 60 people were shot to death at a country music festival. “It was perfect, almost.”
5. Wait for the next horror show to hit. Repeat steps 1 through 4.
A little over a year ago I was in Orlando, reporting on the Pulse nightclub shootings. After that came Dallas, where five law enforcement officers were shot to death. The summer of 2015 I was in Chattanooga after a gunman opened fire at a military post and recruiting center, killing four Marines including a young man from Marietta, and a Navy sailor.
I had almost forgotten about other shooting sprees but searched the newspaper’s archives and there they all were. April 2014: an employee opens fire at a FedEx facility in Kennesaw, injuring six workers before killing himself. April 2009: triple homicide at a community theater in Athens. April 2007: more than 30 dead at Virginia Tech. (Weirdly, that all happened in April; violence happens year-round).
Way back in 1999, that quaint, pre 9/11 era where you could walk through the airport and get on a plane without all the security rigmarole, the AJC’s newsroom was consumed by the May 20 shooting at Heritage High School in Conyers that left six students wounded. The front-page headline in the next day’s paper conveyed a collective shock: “It Happened Here.” Two months later, a day trader opened fire in Buckhead and killed 12 people. A fleet of reporters stayed on that story for weeks, each of us assigned to a different victim so that his or her story could be sensitively and completely told.
Now here I am, all these years later, still writing about the terrible things people do to each other. Monday evening, about 12 hours after the call that sent me to Vegas, I stood in the nearly deserted street next to the Mandalay Bay tower. The hotel’s exterior is a gleaming gold that glowed brilliantly in the sunset but for two smashed-out windows on the 32nd floor, dark and jagged and broken. I looked at them for a long time.
Covering tragedy is part of our jobs as journalists. I’m sad to say it’s starting to feel routine. Will the Las Vegas massacre spur some sort of change in our society? Maybe. I’m keeping my suitcase half-packed and my chargers at the ready just in case it doesn’t.