On her way in to her neighborhood Safeway supermarket Jan. 8, Jacquelyn Jackson ran into Ron Barber, district director for U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who asked her if her husband, who happens to be Peter Michaels, news director at Arizona Public Media, would be covering the “Congress On Your Corner” event.
Jackson knew Barber from having worked for the Giffords team in 2007 and 2008. She had forgotten her mobile phone so she went back to her car to get it. She heard the pops of gunfire.
Jackson was hysterical when Michaels picked up the phone and he didn’t understand what she was saying but knew something was wrong.
Thinking his wife had been in a car accident he drove to the Safeway. When he got to the shopping center about 10:25 a.m., the parking lot was cordoned off by yellow police tape.
Michaels parked his car nearby and walked to the center. Along the way he asked a first responder what was going on. “It’s horrible,” was the reply.
As he walked around the front of the Walgreens and Safeway stores, Michaels said he saw five bodies and Giffords slumped over against the wall as people worked on her.
Michaels, after first finding his wife, then jumped into “work mode.” And with that, NPR was the first national news media network to begin to tell the world of the shootings of 19 people, six of whom died.
Locally, KOLD News 13 was the first station to take to the airwaves at 10:35 a.m. E.J. Junker, assistant news director, got a call from his news desk at 10:14 a.m. He lives near the La Toscana Shopping Center and arrived to see ambulances and the medical evacuation helicopters. Video Junker took also was used by by both CBS and NBC (the latter through an arrangement between KOLD’s parent company and the network).
An enormous catastrophic event such as the shootings are what tests media news departments and shines the light on local outlets. Within short order, though, major national and international news organizations were on their way with ABC, CBS and NBC all originating full programs from Tucson.
The New York Times sent about two dozen reporters to Tucson. Even two days after the event, an Inside Tucson Business reporter ran into a TV crew from Norway.
Giffords pronounced dead
NPR was also the first network to erroneously report that Giffords had died, saying so shortly after noon. Michaels said the report did not come from him but that NPR’s news desk said they were able to confirm it through other sources, including the Pima County Sheriff’s Department.
Among others who also reported Giffords’ death were CNN and Fox News. Although no other broadcast network reported her death, ABC said it did report it on its website for about 10 minutes.
By 12:35 p.m. the outlets tried to retract the report. NPR issued an apology to the families of the victims, its listeners and website readers and calling their mistake “a serious and grave error.”
Local stations were put in the middle of the reports. At one point KVOA 4 did carry a report saying that sources in the Sheriff’s Department said she had died but the station immediately got reports from the hospital that was not the case. Anchor Kristi Tedesco even went so far as to say that an associate of Giffords had seen her communicating with others as she was taken into surgery.
At KOLD, news director Michelle Germano made it clear in no uncertain terms that the station was not reporting Giffords had died unless reporters could confirm with somebody who would be willing to do so on the record. At one point, when a reporter in the field had suggested other news media was reporting she might have died, anchor Mindy Blake came back and said, “We’re reporting facts here. Only what we know.”
At KGUN 9, news director Forrest Carr said the only time the station addressed the issue on the air was after officials at University Medical Center said that Giffords was alive.
“This is an important distinction that mainstream news media needs to make for its own survival,” Carr said. “These days, anybody with a mouse can report anything but we have to be the place you come to find out if rumors are true.”
Germano also said the restraint by local outlets comes from the fact that the big networks, “Leave after its over. We live here. We know these people and will deal with them again. They have to trust us.”
KVOA program bind
About four hours into the news coverage Jan. 8, KVOA found itself facing a scheduling dilemma: on one hand this was a major breaking local news story and on the other, it was scheduled to carry NBC’s coverage of two NFL Wildcard playoff games.
Despite technological advances, there was no way KVOA could fully satisfy viewers who wanted to watch the news coverage and those who wanted to watch the football games at the same time.
“As it got close to game time, it got so bad here that we literally couldn’t get phone lines out,” said Bill Shaw, president and general manager of KVOA. “As soon as we’d hang up from one call and tried to dial out, another call would come in. We were getting inundated.”
At first, the station put video of the game in a box on the screen but without the sound, it made calling viewers only angrier. Shaw said he made the decision to go with the football game but promising viewers the station would interrupt with major developments.
As it turned out, KVOA cut away during halftime of the football games and, because the first game ended earlier than planned, the station had another report between the two games.
Faced with a similar situation the next day, KOLD decided to show the football game but continued to cut-in with updates throughout.
General Manager Debbie Bush said that worked because there wasn’t much breaking news during the day on Sunday but if there had, the station would have interrupted the football telecast for live coverage.
Contact David Hatfield at email@example.com or (520) 295-4237. Inside Tucson Media appears weekly.