Station Reporters Among First Responders in Tucson

[UPDATED] Tucson's local TV station reporters are contributing to a global news story following the horrific shooting of a member of Congress, a child and a federal judge, among others. The grocery store in an upscale neighborhood outside Tucson where the shootings took place Jan. 8 is closed off, but reporters are providing coverage from outside the police barriers and from the various hospitals where the injured lay, including University Medical Center, where Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords remains in critical condition.

Tucson station managers were hard-pressed to think of a news story of this magnitude previously happening in DMA No. 66. "It's completely unprecedented," says KVOA President/General Manager Bill Shaw.

The stations typically went live at 5 a.m. Sunday morning, and stayed local for much of the day. It was, of course, all hands on deck in the newsrooms at the likes of KGUN, KOLD and KVOA, with all available reporters dropping everything to pitch in over the weekend. Shaw mentioned a traffic reporter turning up and asking how they best could be deployed, then pitching in with a stand-up from the shooting site.

"It feels like hurricane coverage," says KGUN News Director Forest Carr, who formerly worked in Tampa.

Journal Communications' KGUN, Raycom's KOLD and Cordillera's KVOA contributed content to CNN. Carr says KGUN has gotten an assist from corporate sibling KTNV Las Vegas, which has pitched in with a reporter, photographer and Web producer, along with a live truck.

Six are dead and more than a dozen are wounded after the Jan. 8 shooting at an assembly hosted by the congresswoman outside a Safeway supermarket. President Obama called it "an unspeakable tragedy." After emergency brain surgery, Rep. Giffords, known locally as "Gabby," was able to follow basic commands from her doctors. She's a popular local figure.
"Everyone has some kind of connection to her," says KOLD News Director Michelle Germano. "She's very local, very visible, very hands-on."

Some stations wrestled with NFL playoff commitments over the weekend; Shaw says he was besieged with calls from both football fans and devoted local news consumers prior to the two Saturday contests, both parties fully expecting their preferred programming would air on the NBC affiliate.

"It was not fun," he concedes.

KVOA aired the games, but took the pre-game, halftime and post-game slots from the network to provide viewers with updates on the shootings. CBS affiliate KOLD aired its game too, and used breaks in play to update viewers. KOLD also used its .2 channel, which usually reports on weather, for local coverage. 

Carr says KGUN relied heavily on the viewers themselves to pitch in with reporting, whether it was eyewitness accounts or photos or testimony from those who knew the suspect, Jared Lee Loughner.

"I'm amazed at the unprecedented outpouring of viewer comments," says Carr. "I'm really impressed with how viewers shared with us--they've been full partners in our coverage."

Some in the newsrooms may be pondering the words of Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, who told a roomful of reporters Saturday that partisan vitriol in the media "is not without consequence." Dupnik is known to speak his mind.

Says Shaw: "We'll continue to do our job."

Monday's reporting followed Rep. Giffords' progress, of course, along with a State of the State address from Gov. Jan Brewer and Loughner's arraignment. KGUN, for one, planned to use its CW affiliate to provide local coverage when the ABC affiliate went with network programming.

Carr described Tucson as a "heartsick community." Exhausted reporters kept at it after the grueling weekend, to both inform local viewers and to give themselves something to focus on.

"It's starting to dawn on them," says KOLD VP/General Manager Debbie Bush, "that their friends have died."

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.