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Amid News of a Massacre, the Power of Simple Reconstruction

Roy J. Harris Jr.
Roy J. Harris Jr., a former Wall Street Journal reporter, examines how reporters in Charleston, South Carolina, knew what, and whom, to believe when reconstructing the shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church that left nine people dead.

From the first official reports on June 17 of mass murder at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina — nine black members of a Bible study group shot dead, a white gunman fleeing the scene — the main challenge for the news media was to make sense of the senseless. And faced with a catastrophe on such a scale, the first instinct was to think big.

Journalists sought to capture the sweep of the horror by probing all its tragic angles: innocent lives lost, the plague of racism, debate about easy access to guns, the possibility that attacks could proliferate and perhaps provoke retaliation.

But the hardest tale to tell in the midst of the chaos — and in some ways the most horrifying — may have been the moment-to-moment recitation of what happened that evening as the group’s study of Mark 4:16–20 was coming to a close. That is what readers of Charleston’s Post and Courier website saw on June 19, less than 48 hours after the massacre, in a report headlined “In an hour, a church changes forever.”

Such straightforward, trustworthy chronologies are vital; more complex theories and opinions in the coverage will grow from those basics. Readers or viewers may well ask: How did the reporters verify their information, and how did they pull it all together?

Journalists call it simply the “tick-tock” — basically a timeline, augmented with details. It’s considered a normal part of the coverage of any catastrophic event: an air crash, a hurricane, a wartime battle, a mass shooting. But listen to Post and Courier reporters Doug Pardue and Jennifer Berry Hawes, and it’s clear there was nothing simple about it.

For one thing, nine of the 11 adults in the church meeting room below the sanctuary had died. The two who survived were unreachable. The day after the shooting, following leads on their own, Pardue and Hawes separately located “people who had heard directly from one or both of the two adult survivors,” according to an email they jointly sent me. Early on June 19 “we compared notes and knew we would be able to put together a fairly complete timeline.”

From their chronological string of notes, built mostly on memories that the survivors passed on to friends, the two reporters “divided the timeline in half” — Hawes taking “the pre-shooting aspect so that we could show how everything seemed perfectly normal” as the Bible study progressed. Pardue “handled the timeline from the moment the shooter showed up in the church parking lot until he left.” In an approach quite common on double-bylined stories like this one, they said, “[w]e then changed off and wrote through each other’s material to make the story tone homogenous.”

Pardue and Hawes were a veteran team, plugged in to local sources in a way few out-of-town reporters could be. Hawes regularly covers “faith and values” — the religion beat — so had good connections in that area. And they were trusted in communities, both black and white, that may have been skeptical of law enforcement; they were among the four reporters whose 2014 series examining the murders of South Carolina women by the men in their lives was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for public service.

An editor’s note accompanying the tick-tock advised readers that the account was “based on interviews with friends and family members, church officials, investigators, court documents and wire stories.” While none of the sources spoke on condition of anonymity, their names — some of which appeared elsewhere in the day’s coverage — weren’t used in the timeline, which made it easier for readers to follow events. The only names that appeared in the tick-tock were those of the victims and the suspected gunman.

The report used crisp present-tense paragraphs — 44 of them. The longest: 58 words. The Bible study group’s reaction to the young-looking white man who enters and seeks to sit in? “He stands out. But to some gathered, he simply looks clean-cut and seems decent, almost shy,” Pardue and Hawes wrote.

“Besides, in the AME Church, all people are welcomed with love, embraced by its members.”

As is often the case in tick-tocks, empty spots were filled in by wire-service material, information from police reports, and time-stamped surveillance photos. As they arrived in Charleston, reporters for larger out-of-town publications also put together timelines using such an approach — for example, The New York Times led its front page on June 21 with a story that expanded the timeline to include what the victims, and the alleged shooter, were doing earlier in the day.

Some early reports from the Times and other national news organizations benefited from Justice Department and FBI leaks — “typical when the national media stars show up on a big story,” Pardue and Hawes said in their email. “This was a bit irksome for us, and it played a little into our decision to get this story up as quickly as we could complete it. … We were pleased that we got the story first.”

What was the value of their story to the overall coverage? “We believe such stories help quell rumors and arm people with the facts,” the reporters said. Plus, the focus was on the victims far more than their killer. Still, they add: “We both firmly believe that this story helped expose the face of hate for what it is.”

Harris met Doug Pardue and Jennifer Berry Hawes in May when he visited The Post and Courier to talk about its 2015 Pulitzer Prize for public service. A new edition of his book about the public service prizes, “Pulitzer’s Gold: A Century of Public Service Journalism,” is being published in January 2016 by Columbia University Press.