A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.
Sometimes a news outlet’s scoop is a tremendous source of pain for the people involved.
This is one of those times in Texas.
Family members of some of the children killed in Uvalde are outraged at the Austin American-Statesman and KVUE’s publication of surveillance video from inside Robb Elementary School. Texas officials are also furious about the leak. Uvalde mayor Don McLaughlin said the Statesman’s actions were “one of the most chicken things I’ve ever seen.”
The “hallway video,” as it has come to be known, is visual evidence of police officers’ actions, and inaction, during the May 24 attack.
Families of the victims were expecting to be see the footage on Sunday. Rep. Dustin Burrows, chair of the Texas House committee investigating the school shooting, said Tuesday morning that “we will meet with members of the community first, and provide them an opportunity to see the hallway video and discuss our preliminary report. Very soon thereafter, we will release both to the public.”
The Statesman and its TV partner KVUE decided not to wait. The paper stated its reasons for publishing. And the TV station did the same when it interrupted afternoon programming – in this case, ABC’s coverage of the Jan. 6 hearing – to show carefully selected clips from the video.
“We’re doing this for these people,” anchor Bryan Mays said while showing the faces of the dead, “for their families in Uvalde, for the people of the city, and really the people of the state of Texas who have been desperate to learn what happened inside that school back in May.”
The anchors warned viewers in advance that they would see video of the gunman; hear audio of gunfire; and see police officers waiting and waiting in the hallway outside the classrooms. Importantly, the audio of children screaming was edited out. And the video was not graphic per se. But it was gut-wrenching to watch.
“This is not a decision that we have taken lightly,” reporter Tony Plohetski, who has been out in front on this story, told viewers. “We have carefully considered what we are doing here.” Plohetski said he knew some would disagree, but noted that family members and government officials have called for transparency. “We found ourselves in a position – once we obtained this video – that we similarly did not feel it was in our interest to withhold it from the public,” he said.
Consider his framing: What if you were in charge of a newsroom and you received a leaked copy of the hallway video? Would you withhold it?
Conversely, what if your child was murdered at school? Would you want the surveillance video to be seen?
The Statesman’s explanation
Executive editor Manny Garcia wrote in a Tuesday afternoon column that the decision to publish came “after long and thoughtful discussions.” The news outlets removed sounds “of children screaming as the gunman enters the classroom,” because, Garcia wrote, “we consider this too graphic.”
“We have also chosen to show the face of the gunman as he enters this school,” he wrote. “Our news organization guidelines state that we should not glorify these individuals and give them the notoriety that they seek. We chose, in this instance, to show his face to chisel away at any conspiracy that we are hiding something.”
In total, two versions of the video were released on Tuesday: Four minutes of “critical moments” and then the entire video that was leaked.
According to Garcia, the touchstone was transparency: “This tragedy has been further tragic by changing stories, heroic-sounding narratives proven to be false and a delay or in most cases rejection of media requests for public information by law enforcement leaders, public officials and elected leaders.” He pointed out that “this story is part of a much larger public records and legal battle” by media outlets “to obtain all videos of the tragedy, body-camera footage, communications, 911 calls and more.”
“Have some freaking decency”
Among some parents and other loved ones, “anger is aimed at both the law enforcement response depicted in the surveillance footage and at the Austin-American Statesman for publishing the video,” CNN’s Cheri Mossburg wrote Tuesday evening.
Some family members posted notes on social media urging others not to share the leaked video. “This is the opposite of what the families wanted!!!!!” Gloria Cazares, whose daughter Jackie was killed, wrote on Facebook.
Angel Garza, whose daughter Amerie was killed, said “who in the hell do these people think they are?” He called out local officials, perhaps trying to single out the leaker, and said “you want to go ahead and air their final moments to the entire world. What makes you think that’s OK? The least you can do is have some freaking decency for us.” CNN’s Mary Kay Mallonee and Amir Vera have further reactions here…
The bottom line
Did the news outlets do the right thing? Did they do it the right way? I suspect this will be debated for a long time. Burrows, who is chairing the House investigation, tweeted that he was “disappointed” that the Uvalde community didn’t get to see the footage first. But he also said he was “glad” that some material was now public.
Dallas-based entrepreneur and former Obama admin official Brandon Friedman observed that “authorities have had nearly two months to share the video with the families. They should’ve been shown the video within a week of the shooting. Stop blaming the press.”
CNN’s Shimon Prokupecz framed it this way: “At every turn families in Uvalde have been disrespected. Authorities have had plenty of chances to provide them information. To provide them the video. It didn’t happen. Now with days away from them seeing the video — it is leaked.”
Prokupecz rightly focused on what the video actually shows – for instance, “officers retreating and running for cover in the minutes after they entered the school. Training teaches them to press the fight.” That didn’t happen. Then they wait, and wait, and wait some more. “Officers standing around doing nothing,” he wrote. “This is painful to watch. We know what’s on the other side of walls. They seem to have no clue what to do. How is this possible?”