Uvalde Leader-News publisher speaks about covering tragic shooting one year later
Craig Garnett shared his experience covering the Uvalde school shooting with interns from Dow Jones News Fund
June 2, 2023
Craig Garnett, the editor and publisher of the Uvalde Leader-News, shared his experience leading a community newspaper through tragedy Thursday to the Dow Jones News Fund multiplatform editing interns at the University of Texas at Austin.
Garnett, who’s been at the Uvalde Leader-News since 1982, highlighted the importance a community newspaper plays in recording the history of a town, as well as the challenges and benefits that come with national newspapers reporting in Uvalde — which happened after the shooting at Robb Elementary School in May 2022 that killed 21 students and teachers.
Here are the interns’ top takeaways from Garnett’s talk:
MATTHEW BROWN, UC Berkeley, San Francisco Chronicle
In this industry, the best way we can learn is learning from other journalists. Listening to Craig Garnett speak about the impact of his newsroom and their efforts to not only cover their community with justice, but with a unique approach to offer a supportive space for a grieving town is a lesson for all papers – big or small. Oftentimes as journalists, our commitment to telling other people’s stories can prevent us from remembering that we are humans as well, and if we separate that key part of ourselves then we can never truly approach this work with the sensitivity our communities deserve. Garnett’s talk was an extremely valuable and important reminder for us as we head off to such high impact newsrooms.
Garnett: “If we have something to say, we say it, and then we suffer the consequences.”
AARON HUGHES, Eastern Michigan University, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
If we hadn’t been a family we wouldn’t have survived the last year.
— Craig Garnett - Publisher, Editor of The Uvalde Leader-News
Garnett’s discussion on handling trauma in journalism was an insightful experience and conversation. His experience of covering the Uvalde mass shooting with such a small staff is inspiring and shocking. Hearing his story as a local journalist talk about an event like that is one of the best examples of true watchdog journalism that I’ve heard. Being able to reflect and cover the community the way he and his staff did is something that I want to take back to my local newspaper and something I hope to carry to my internship. It shows that local journalism is still fundamental.
Garnett: “If we hadn’t been a family we wouldn’t have survived the last year.”
SPENCER OTTE, Cal State Fullerton, Bay City News
Reporters who cover events like wars, terrorist attacks and school shootings can find themselves with lingering trauma after immersing themselves in the tragedy. Garnett said that he believed he and his staff suffered from PTSD after their coverage of the Uvalde shooting. He said they have not had professional therapy, but that the tight-knit staff acts as their own therapists.
“I think at one point, perhaps they’ll have to,” he said of the prospects of his staff getting professional help.
He spoke about the value of small community newspapers as local watchdogs. The staff and reporters on small local papers generally have a better idea of the needs of their communities and can adjust their coverage accordingly and bring attention to issues that might not get national play.
FRANCESCA BERMUDEZ, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles Times
Throughout Craig Garnett’s discussion, I was reminded of the journalistic principle of minimizing harm. The Uvalde Leader-News chose to wait two weeks after the Robb Elementary School shooting to reach out to families of victims. While this may be surprising, it was a choice the Leader-News staff made to respect the grieving community. Once the reporters began reaching out to sources, they approached the sources in a gentle and compassionate manner. It is important to consider the experiences of sources when they have been exposed to trauma-inducing events.
Garnett: “We hold up a mirror to the community.”
ISABEL FUNK, Northwestern University, San Francisco Chronicle
We’re writing the history of the community each day.
— Craig Garnett - Publisher and Editor of The Uvalde Leader-News
Craig Garnett’s newsroom showed incredible strength and unity in the aftermath of the Uvalde shooting. Although the reporters came into the newsroom and cried for weeks, they found a way through the reporting on their community alongside major national media outlets. Garnett said they took a different approach than other publications, allowing survivors and families of the victims space before reaching out. Empathy is key for trauma-informed reporting.
Garnett: “We’re writing the history of the community each day.”
ROBERT STEWART, University of Arkansas, Stars and Stripes
More often than not, it seems our society has become numb to mass shootings. It is hard to humanize them when they occur with such regularity, but hearing from the journalists who have to cover them adds so much perspective. The contrast between the approaches the Uvalde Leader-News and national media outlets took in covering the Robb Elementary School shooting was fascinating to me. The latter, with no strong connection to the community, wanted answers and quotes right away, whereas the former, a staple of Uvalde, took its time. No one knew the people of the small town better than the small newspaper staff that covered them, and it prioritized the wishes and the feelings of the bereaved above all.
Garnett: “If that doesn’t move the needle on gun control in our county, I don’t know what does.”
ETHAN THOMAS, University of Texas at El Paso, The Texas Tribune
Coming from a town that has unfortunately also experienced a tragedy, the value of hearing Craig Garnett’s perspective on covering Uvalde’s shooting is immeasurable. I feel community-based, trauma-informed journalism is becoming more and more important, which made the way Garnett and the Uvalde Leader-News covered the shooting so important, and impactful. The most important topic expressed during the talk, was the collaboration Uvalde Leader-News had with bigger, national outlets swarming to report on the event. Although Garnett also spoke on the shortcomings of this, explaining the reporters from the larger organizations went straight into interviewing victims’ families, and while some of the families preferred this, Garnett’s team opted to give the families time to heal.
The talk helped bring to light several points; collaborate with different journalists because they have a perspective you may not have thought of, and will encourage you to do better and be better. Listen to your community, they are the ones affected, and they need the reporting to accurately depict what is happening to a much broader audience. And remember that even at smaller papers, you will act as a watchdog. As much as you are an assayer, you will face times when you need to protect your community.
Garnett: “They wanted to give voice to the children.”
ANDREA TERES-MARTINEZ, Boise State University, The Wall Street Journal
Conversations like the ones given by Craig Garnett remind me that journalists, like their sources, are people first. Sometimes we feel the need to share stories of grief and disaster, and the way in which we do it matters. The role of a journalist is to provide information to an audience, but it’s equally as important to know when the timing of that information might cause more grief. Colors, words and images can make or break a reader’s trust. Sympathizing with a reader is one of the most profound experiences we can achieve as storytellers, which is why real stories deserve real people behind that byline. Through Garnett’s recounting of his newsroom’s coverage on the tragic shooting in Uvalde, I am reminded of that relationship between fact and truth.
Garnett: “The message comes before friendship.”
COLIN CRAWFORD, Northwestern University, The New York Times
I wasn’t sure what to expect when we began the moderated discussion because Uvalde so recently went through unspeakable tragedy. I am so glad I got to learn more about how the local paper covered this event and what it meant for them to be of service to their community. The town is a prime example of parachuting journalists who drop into grief-stricken communities and try to get stories so I was intrigued by Garnett saying that part of the community really needed that outlet to share their story in a public way. Garnett’s point about how an event like this can change your perspective on life really struck me as painful, yet powerful.
Garnett: “The level of destruction of human life and the soul of so many people makes you reconsider, much like our state representative did, ‘What are my values? What do I need to accomplish as a human being?’”
SOPHIE YOUNG, Kent State University, The New York Times
In the midst of all this, our reporter who was sitting at her desk that morning lost her child. That really set us back a while… We cried for a while; we cried for three weeks.
— Craig Garnett - Publisher and Editor of The Uvalde Leader-News
Garnett and his reporters were a part of the community they were reporting on, with a unique perspective they could use to cover the tragedy. One of his reporters lost her child in the shooting, a child she brought into the newsroom at five days old. They approached the other victim’s families with empathy, waiting two weeks to reach out and offering to listen when parents were ready. This approach was different from the national news outlets that parachuted in, providing valuable, although immediate, coverage. The small local staff pulled together as a “family” to survive a year reporting on an event that forever changed Uvalde.
Garnett: “In the midst of all this, our reporter who was sitting at her desk that morning lost her child. That really set us back a while… We cried for a while; we cried for three weeks.”
GRANT JOHNSON, James Madison University, The Washington Post
Quote from you: Coming into Garnett’s speech, I was especially interested in hearing about his approach to trauma-informed journalism. I couldn’t imagine how I’d react to covering a shooting of the magnitude the Uvalde Leader-News did in its hometown. And walking away from it, I’m inspired by Garnett’s approach leading a staff under such difficult circumstances: His staff suggested running an all-black cover the day after the Uvalde shooting — and Garnett not only listened but went through with their request, even though he said he wanted to run a more traditional cover. I’m honored to have heard him speak, and I’ll look to apply some of his lessons to my student newspaper at James Madison, The Breeze, and this summer at The Washington Post.
Garnett: “If we had not been a family, I don’t think we would’ve survived this past year.”
DORI GRAY, Ohio University, The New York Times
Quote from you: Craig Garnett provided a lot of wisdom. He shared how his newsroom prevailed through a tragedy that directly impacted them. I appreciate how the Uvalde Leader-News gave families affected by the school shooting time before requesting an interview, unlike the parachute journalists who prided themselves in jumping on the story. That is not the typical way of covering a school shooting. Garnett’s newsroom was empathetic and tried to avoid retraumatizing the families of the victims in the course of their coverage.
Garnett: “I don’t think we interviewed a family for at least two weeks. It’s just not our style.”