The Neverending Story: The Tucson Shootings and Features Journalism
By Arienne Thompson
2011 SFJ Diversity Fellow
Expect to see a glut of stories commemorating the 10th anniversary of September 11 next week. Don’t be surprised when a human interest story about the earthquakes in Japan and Haiti continue to cross your desk. And, even if you’ve never been to Arizona, a piece about the Jan. 8 shooting in Tucson that critically injured Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords might still catch your eye half a year later.
The nature of features means that a tragedy, whose lifespan peters out in a few weeks or months for news, lives much longer for human interest and lifestyle journalists.
“The news (of the shooting) was told pretty quickly,” Giffords’ communications director CJ Karamargin told the audience at a panel discussion about the relationship between features and crises during the Society for Features Journalism’s annual conference today. But, Karamargin continued, “the consequences and what it meant, was told by feature writers.”
Panelists Stephanie Innes of The Arizona Daily Star and Jaimee Rose of The Arizona Republic are two of those features writers who keep the story of the shooting alive with follow-up stories about the victims and their families.
Rose is notable for being the only reporter inside the University Medical Center, where she was able to conduct the first interview with intern Daniel Hernandez, whose actions helped save Giffords’ life.
“There was no yellow tape,” she recalled of making her way into the hospital via the cafeteria. “Once I realized where I was and who I was with, I wasn’t going to leave.”
She also stuck around to get the story of Christina-Taylor Green, a 9-year-old girl who was killed during the shooting. Rose remembers how being a features writer intersected with her humanity when the girl’s father gave her a tour of his daughter’s bedroom.
“We’re not supposed to break the arm’s length (rule), but I did put my arm around him,” Rose remembered. “I really do think it’s something in your heart.”
Innes tracked the lives of the 13 other injured victims of the shooting, lending a longevity and humanity to the story that doesn’t just end with occasional updates about the congresswoman and progress, who just last week was fully informed of the casualties in the shooting.
Panelist Capt. Adam Goldberg of the Northwest Fire District remarked that “it took us 30 to 45 days to get back to our routine and our lives,” following the deluge of media requests in the wake of the shooting. However, the timetable for a features writer is much more fluid.
The stories of Giffords, Hernandez, Green and the friends and family who support, honor and grieve them could hypothetically go on forever. The responsibility to keep their stories alive falls on features journalists, who must seek new, human ways to tell an “old” story.
And, fortunately, the quest to find that new angle on this story has not slowed yet.
“To this day, it amazes me how insatiable the appetite is for information about the congresswoman,” Karamargin says. “It’s a bottomless pit.”