AP’s U.S. staff has a lot of practice in responding to mass shootings. But two major events in 24 hours tested even the most experienced staff.
They rose to the challenge.
Soon after noon Central time on Saturday, Aug. 3, reports began to surface about an active shooter at an El Paso, Texas, mall.
While it would be several hours before details of the story would become clear, the quick reaction of AP staff around the country and beyond – in the office, at home and even on vacation – ensured the AP was fast, accurate and leading the way on what would become one of the biggest stories of the year.
Initial reports remained sketchy, and a local news station reported without attribution about a half-hour after the initial reports, that 18 people were shot inside a Walmart – a shocking number, but one that would prove well under the final casualty count, which by Monday would rise to 22 dead and two dozen injured.
While Dallas staffer Diana Heidgerd and Oklahoma City’s Ken Miller worked to confirm details on the phone and colleagues elsewhere scoured the internet for citizen content (UGC), El Paso staffer Cedar Attanasio rushed to the scene, where he went live with Bambuser to provide the AP’s first live video, and then sent text feeds with updates from law enforcement.
Initial police briefings were vague and frustrating. Washington law enforcement reporter Mike Balsamo, on vacation in Orlando, Florida, was among those who were working their sources, along with Washington colleague Eric Tucker. Their efforts resulted in a AP NewsAlert moving soon after 5 p.m., reporting that at least 15 were dead and naming the suspect. For hours, other news organizations relied on that number as the most trustworthy being reported.
By the time that alert moved, AP managers throughout the country had already been working for hours to get additional staff to the scene. Among those joining Attanasio in El Paso by that evening and into the next morning were video journalists John Mone of Houston and Mike Householder of Detroit, Las Vegas photographer John Locher and text staffers Astrid Galvan from Phoenix and Morgan Lee from Sante Fe, New Mexico.
Among the standout coverage was an early cross-format interview by Lee the night of the shooting with a woman who told the heartbreaking story of her sister who died while shielding her 2-month-old son. It was a story that other news organizations were still matching three days later.
That story got more than 80,000 pageviews, and the first day’s mainbar upward of 640,000 pageviews – just a small part of the terrific cross-format play for the continuing coverage.
As the Texas team was just catching its breath, reports of another massacre emerged, this time in Ohio. U.S. overnight staffer Mallika Sen in New York pivoted from the El Paso developments, alerting deputy East editor Peter Morgan to reports of a shooting in Dayton. While Morgan mobilized staff to head in from Cincinnati and Columbus and video staff in London began to take in feeds of police activity, Sen worked phones and monitored multiple sources to confirm details.
An initial alert that a hospital was treating 16 shooting victims was followed four minutes later by the alert that a shooter killed nine people, including his own sister, in a matter of seconds before police shot him dead. AP’s alert beat numerous news outlets by nearly 20 minutes.
The Ohio staff – including Dan Sewell, Kantele Franko and Julie Carr Smyth, who jumped in on her birthday – raced to Dayton. Cincinnati photographer John Minchillo scored a jarring frame of shoes piled behind police tape at the shooting scene before he and other media were moved farther away. That image and his compelling visuals from multiple vigils ran on front pages and in large displays inside The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.
Minchillo, later joined by video journalists Angie Wang of Cincinnati and Robert Bumsted of New York, ensured that AP beat other agencies on numerous live shots, and East news director Sara Gillesby secured exclusive UGC from the scene. Bumsted shot an incredibly compelling interview with a man who watched his father die in his arms. Many of the same supporting cast already working the El Paso story from afar stepped in on Ohio as well, including Washington reporter Michael Biesecker’s work on a shooter profile, Balsamo, who continued working sources from the Orlando theme park, and White House reporter Jonathan Lemire, who wrote a piece about President Donald Trump’s absence from public view on Sunday morning.
For its quick, nimble response, precise reporting and robust, cross-format content on two highly competitive breaking stories, the U.S. staff is recognized with this week’s Best of the States award.