Covering shooting priceless experience despite circumstances

Last Wednesday I was so exhausted that I asked my editor at The Texas Tribune—where I intern— if I could work from my apartment the next day.

At around 8 o’clock that night, I received an unexpected phone call from a different editor at the Tribune.

She called to ask if I wanted to be a stringer for the Washington Post and cover the shooting that had taken place earlier that day at Ft. Hood. I was obviously “extremely prepared” for the call since I had no idea that a tragedy had happened and didn’t know what a stringer was.

The Post needed a reporter to supplement their coverage of the shooting until one of their staff writers arrived the next afternoon. It would be the stringer’s job to drive up to Killeen immediately and start reporting.

My first thoughts were— gosh she must have the wrong number right now. I’m not skilled enough or experienced enough to do this. Also, I’m scared. My excuse: I have homework, which was true. 

I politely turned down the offer, thanked the editor for thinking of me and refocused on my Spanish homework.

It took a few seconds, but I realized that I had just made a terrible, potentially career-limiting decision. However, the thought of driving to Killeen by myself, finding and staying in a hotel by myself and poking around in a town that had just suffered a major tragedy for the second time in five years honestly scared me to death. But I realized I needed and deep down wanted this experience. It was foolish to stay in Austin to finish my homework. 

In a panicked tizzy, I called my editor back and said I had changed my mind. A few moments later I received a call from a Washington, D.C. phone number and at that moment I started faking an impeccable confidence. On the inside, I was squirming like a small child that had just lost their mom in the grocery store, but on the outside I was a composed, professional reporter, seeking information.

The woman I spoke with from the Washington Post wanted me to leave as soon as possible and asked if I could stay until one o’clock the next day. I ended up getting the opportunity to stay until Friday evening, and although the experience was an emotional roller coaster I’m so glad I went.

After hanging up the phone, I took possibly the fastest shower ever, threw a few things in a bag, forgot many essential items, said a quick prayer and ran out the door.

I called my journalism professor in the car. Sometimes I think she doubles as my second mom, and I’m so grateful for that. To Jena, aka Professor Heath, I let my guard down and was open about how nervous I was. She talked my nerves down and gave me some tips. I started to feel like I could actually handle this. 

The next couple of days are a complete blur.

I drove up and down Killeen. I went to the victims’ homes, the shooter’s apartment and the store where he bought the gun. I knocked on random neighbors’ doors, went to the workplace of neighbors, attended press conferences, talked to countless people and had the opportunity to work alongside a seasoned Washington Post reporter. He treated me like a colleague, and it was pretty cool.

The situation was heartbreaking, but the experience was priceless. I learned so much. When I drove home from Killeen on Friday, I realized that somewhere along the way I stopped faking confidence and just became confident. I couldn’t believe I almost passed up the opportunity, and I also realized that on Wednesday I didn’t truly know what tired meant.