Covering the San Bernardino Terror Attack

(2 December 2015)

(scroll down to see the photo gallery associated with this article)

I was talking to my friend and colleague, Damian Dovarganes from the Associated Press, when he said, “Something’s come up, some sort of shooting, gotta go.”  Almost immediately after that I started receiving text alerts, “Shooting in San Bernardino.  Reports of 20 victims.”  Text message from office, “Guys, reports of shooting in San Bernardino. Please advise coverage.”  Quick text message back, “Yah, am aware, will advise”.

“Oh no”, I thought.  “Not another mass shooting.”  Next thought, “Hope it’s not a Muslim shooter.”  Horrific mass shootings have become so commonplace in America that now it’s like, “How many are killed?”  If it’s four or more I’ve gotta cover,” is my unfortunate thought process on these story.  I’ve covered a number of mass shootings in the last few years… the Isla Vista shooting near UC Santa Barbara where my daughter Nabra was studying at the time.  Two of the sorority girl victims were killed right across the street from her sophomore year apartment. US Congresswoman Gabriel Gifford assassination attempt in Tucson and the Santa Monica College mass shooting. I could go on for sometime on my thoughts on gun violence and mass killings in America (a topic for another discussion).

Here in the US, my first reaction to such breaking news events is to turn on the TV and see what local news is up to.  The local TV networks, particularly in a market like LA, have enormous resources…helicopters, many mobile crews, large staffs and relationships with affiliates so they are able to start reporting almost immediately on breaking news stories and have visuals in the time it takes a chopper to reach the scene.  There was already a KTLA (my go-to station) reporter near the scene.  He was repeating what news alert I had received.  Media outlets particularly news television reporting have a tendency to often use the most exaggerated speculations when it comes to casualties and then downgrade it when more reliable information starts coming through.  This, however, was different.  Already law enforcement were indicating there were at least 20 victims and a number of them were deceased. “This is big,”, I said to myself and prepared to move on the story.  Text to office, “Heading out.”

I live in Topanga at the opposite end of LA from San Bernardino.  Reports mentioned that the shooting took place at the Inland Regional Center and might be tied to a mental training health facility.  Thought, “OK, another crazy with a gun.  Not terrorism.”  The shooting was 90 miles from where I live.  One and a half hours with no traffic.  Up to three or more hours during rush hour traffic.  Fortunately, the shooting took place in the morning and traffic was light. I turned on the all news local radio station KNX 1070 and they were rushing reporters to the scene.  No more details.  My cellphone rings and it’s the office.  I tell them I’m on my way and we discuss coverage plans. My colleague is unavailable because he is sequestered in jury service and uncontactable.  The office says get a stringer on the story.  So trying to drive safely (hands free connection, of course,…but still had to find freelance photographer numbers…iPhone Siri voice recognition doesn’t always work).  I start calling.  Most don’t answer and I leave messages.  I get through to some and they’ve already been snapped up.  Doesn’t look good for support. EPA TV videographer, Eugene Garcia, has been alerted and is heading towards the scene.  We support each other by shooting video and stills.  Paul Buck, my colleague, is finally reached but he is limited in his communications. He works the phone trying to see about picking up images from local newspapers which usually are the first on the scene.   “Good, hope we can get something,” I think, but am not optimistic.  AP (Associated Press) is the dominated news agency in the United States and has an intimidating relationship with its subscribers.  Saying, “You can’t provide images to other news outlets because you are members.”  True, they are subscribers, but the newspaper owns their own images and can do what they want with them.  (I digress and this is another good topic of discussion to be taken up in another post).

I talk with Eugene as more text message bing on my phone (freelance photogs saying they are not available mostly because they have already been hired by other news outlets who were faster on the draw…no pun intended).  OK, so coverage at this point is up to me with help from Eugene.  He asks me to shoot video and I say, “I’ll do my best”.  He does the same for stills.  So, now it’s a matter of getting there and getting as close as possible  The “Arranging Coverage of a Major Breaking Story” phase is essentially over.  I’m nearing the scene and now it’s time to get close…generally the most frustrating and risky (in terms of law enforcement reaction to media…another topic of a post and my arrest as “a sightseer at the scene of an emergency” for coverage of the Santa Monica College mass shooting in June 2013).

Nearing the scene but still a mile or so away, I am stopped at a road block by law enforcement. I have law enforcement sanctioned placards, media credentials from Sheriff, Police Dept and Governor’s Office and I want to go right to get closer to the site and am told by an officer, “Media is gathering at another location” which is a circuitous five plus mile detour.  When it comes to news coverage of breaking stories, the faster you can get there the better access you will have.  The longer it takes to get to the scene, the more time law enforcement can deploy an ever widening security perimeter.  Law enforcement does not like the media and from my experience, one of their unwritten duties is to keep the press away.  (this is another topic of discussion…law enforcement intimidation and antagonism towards the media).  I shoot a few weak images of the police roadblock.  I see that down the road where I wanted to go, crowds have gathered.  I start towards the police designated media gathering/control spot (five miles away and harder and more time consuming to reach as more and more police converge on the area and close off more streets creating huge traffic congestion).

I notice a school and students gathered in the grounds.  I think, “Maybe they are being evacuated.  Could be an angle to the story.” I drive over to investigate.  No, it’s just recess.  But it has taken me to a side street that leads in the direction of the shooting scene. No cops on this road so I proceed ahead.  I’m getting closer. Turn right and at the end of the street, I’m there.  Media news trucks, spectators and lots and lots of law enforcement. Why, the police at the roadblock half a mile away did not let me go knowing full well that media had been allowed there and even citizens were not prevented from gathering in the area…. well, seems pretty clear to me….”Do whatever you can to make the press’s job as difficult and frustrating as possible.”

OK, I’m here….now to try and do some photos.  I can’t see the building (we are still a few hundred yards away, but at least I’m where the other media has been allowed to go. Press work particularly for still photographers is very competitive.  Though I was alerted very quickly to the story, the long drive time to get there means I’m a bit later than others.).  I see other colleagues and am about to get a sense of what there is to cover when I see a group of people coming from the direction of the shooting site.  They are being escorted to a bus and are already through the intersection.  Civilians are pushed up against the police line and cops are not allowing media to stand in open areas to get a clearer shot.  I shoot away.  Lighting is terribly back lite (no time to put a flash on camera).  Law enforcement seems to be intentionally blocking our viewpoint and these people are being herded quickly into the waiting bus.  I ask and officer that is standing in front of me with her arms outstretched, “Are these people being evacuated from the building?”  Ignores me.  “Excuse me, I’m with the European Press Agency,” and repeat the question. No answer.  A television reporter behind me says,  “Yes, they are.”  Thanks public servant for helping the Fourth Estate inform the people…a Constitutional Right.

I shoot pictures of police standing around police tape and decide to file something.  It is always important in the wire service business to file pictures as soon as possible.  With so many on-line news outlets, often whomever gets their pictures out first get published.  And once the picture is posted on the news site it often stays there even if better more newsworthy pictures are eventually available to them.  “Good, I got something,” I say to myself.  “They’ll be more evacuees and I’ll have a better chance to get in a better position to make a more telling and visually interesting picture.”  As it turns out, that was it.  No more evacuees.  Pictures filed.  Now what to do?  A lot of our job is hurry up, get hassled to get access, get hassled to take pictures, quickly file photos sitting on the side of the street where you can hardly see your computer screen and trying to get a fast enough internet connection to upload images, edit, figure out what to write in a caption, upload photos.  Meanwhile, text messages are coming through, office and colleagues are calling you.  Do you answer or do you work?  If you keep answering and replying to text messages, you’ll delay putting out pictures for 15, 20, 30 minutes or sometimes longer.  But maybe they have useful information that you will need or say something like, “We heard something is going on and can you check it out?”  I look around and though there are some of my colleagues here, I ask myself, “Where are all the others? Is there a better place to go for coverage.”

I had been in touch with Eugene who was on the other side where most of the media had been directed to the police designated “Media staging area.” He had it covered.  OK, what next? I often try to file from the backseat of my car, so I can listen to the radio and hear if there are any more developments.  Reports were coming through that evacuees were being taken to a center somewhere in downtown San Bernardino to be reunited with family.  This could be good but it takes me away from the scene and getting back in will be getting more and more difficult as time goes by.  However, that decision was interrupted when some police started running towards their vehicles.  They sped off with sirens on.  Something’s going on.  I got into my car and was attempting to follow them when I was stopped by police and told not to move.  I was stuck in the middle of the intersection.  More police vehicles were blasting by with sirens going.  I tried to pursuant the officer to led me move during breaks when I could safely move out the the intersection.  “No, stay there,” she said.  I started to get out of the car to take pictures of what was going on, “Get back in your car”, she yelled.  A heavily armed SWAT team clinging to an armored vehicle was headed in my direction. I grappled for a camera and tried to shoot something from the window.  It sped past and was blocked by by poles, police and car parts. I twisted around in my seat and shot it as it was headed away.  Lame photo.  Disappointed because this type of picture with SWAT people clinging to the side of an armored vehicle gets well published and I knew my colleagues whose movements had not been restricted had gotten the shot.  I pleaded politely with the officer to let me proceed.  Even after after all the siren blaring police vehicles had sped by she kept me there another 10 minutes.  Amazing.  It was all over.  I was an obstruction in the intersection, yet she deliberating did not allow me to proceed. Other media were already on their way.  Frustration is a very big part of the job.  And in the US, you don’t try and reason too much with law enforcement.  They take offense very quickly when you question them and can detain or even arrest you for obstruction of justice with impunity (it happened to me).

I was going to try and keep this essay relatively concise and short, but lots of issues crop up when I started recounting my thinking process and the unfolding of events.  It’s important to understand what goes into covering such a story.  Most of this recounting is very typical of breaking hard news stories, such as shootings, disasters, earthquakes, fires, floods, mudslides, and other tragedies such as plane crashes, train derailments, explosions, manhunts.

Once I was allowed to go, I needed to figure out what was happening.  I tried to reach colleagues (no one answering….a good and bad sign…good that there was probably something important to cover, bad because they were too busy covering it to answer their phones or text messages).  The all news radio station would normally be a good means of getting an idea of what’s going on and where, but the station’s reception far from it’s normal broadcasting region and because there were huge power lines nearby, I could not understand what they were reporting.  TV, of course, is the other means.  I tried calling friends I knew who might be home to watch the news.  No luck.  I got bits and pieces of information and a general street address.  I had to head somewhere so I proceeded but as I neared the area I realized the information was not right (it turned out to be where evacuees were being taken and in the opposite direction of where I needed to go).  News helicopters are also a good means of locating where something is happening.  However, they were all over the place and very high in the sky.  There seemed to be a concentration of them east of where I was so I headed in their general direction.  As I neared the area, I realized I was headed in the right direction….big traffic piles up as police redirected traffic.  With my press placard and press license plate and acting as if I knew what I was doing I drove along the shoulder of the four-lane road past the backed-up traffic.  An illegal offense in California.  I was hoping that the police had more important things to do than ticket a member of the media for doing his job…He waved me through…phew this time it worked.

I rolled up to where already dozens of media were gathered at another roadblock.  “What’s happening?” I asked colleagues.  “There’s a shoot-out over there.  Could be the perpetrators”, A television journalist replied. The sun was setting so I scrambled to take pictures of police behind vehicles pointing weapons (no heavily armed SWAT people here), and down the street to a conglomeration of emergency and law enforcement vehicles.  Even with a 300 mm lens and an extender it was very far away and with fading light and needing to shoot with a high IOS and even with a monopod, the quality of the images were poor.  I retrieved my computer and sat against the fence and filed until it was too dark to see the keyboard.  Again, I had been in contact with my video colleague, Eugene.  He had made it to the scene but again on the other side.  He had shot stills as I had shot video at both locations.  “OK.  This scene is covered. Now what?”, I thought to myself.

When you are alone or understaff on such a big story like this one, you need to make decisions whether to stay and see if something more develops or move on to another part of the still developing story.  With the other agencies, such as Associated Press, Reuters, Getty, Agence France Presse who will often saturate coverage of a story like this (hence why no freelancers were available when I had called around hours earlier), they will keep photographers  posted outside each situation for hours… just in case.  Also, with AP and some of the others who have partnerships with newspapers, their editors will pick-up images from local sources in addition to what their own photographers are able to get.  Also, with other agencies who have large offices with staff editors and journalists who are in contact with law enforcement agencies, first responders, they will inquire about handout images which if available they will acquire and process.  All of this takes time and effort and when you are alone without these benefits you do what you can.

It was night now and the only other aspect of the story I could think of (other than hospitals where victims had been taken….but I had been told they were completely sealed off by the authorities) was where the evacuees had been taken to be reunited with family and to be released after being consoled and questioned.  It now was nine hours after the shooting had started and the first report was coming out that one of those killed in the shoot-out with police where I had just been had a Middle Eastern name.   “Oh, no,” I thought to myself.  This is not good.”  If the report were true then this could be the work of terrorists linked to Islamic extremist organizations.  A big story, just got much bigger.  The Paris attacks, Lebanon bombings and downing of the Russian airliner in Egypt had only taken place two weeks earlier.  Was this related?

My last stop for the day was at the Rudy Hernandez Community Center in San Bernardino where the evacuees had been gathering.  I was not too hopeful that many or anybody would be left nine hours after they had been evacuated from the building.  TV crews with their media satellite trucks had staked out their swath of territories, set-up lighting for their stand-ups and tried to convince evacuees to talk with them as they were released.  I was tired.  Not too many people appeared to still be around.  There were a few inside behind some glass. I asked if I could go in. “No”  I made sure those people standing in the corridor that I could see through the window were evacuees. Very important that information put on your caption is 100 percent correct.  If you are not sure, you shoot the picture but you don’t file photos until you definitely know what is what.  I shot a few pictures of the evacuees.  Not much was going on. Mainly people just waiting.  A few appeared to be consoling each other. A man and wife were hugging.  I didn’t stay too long.  It was late and I needed to file these pictures. It was too dark and too cold to work on the computer outside, so I decided to take the extra 10 minutes and find a diner.  Easier said than done in a economically depressed city like San Bernardino. No Denny’s.  The Molly’s Cafe closed.  An Italian restaurant closed.  Finally I settled for a Mexican fast-food restaurant in a dicey neighborhood.

Eugene made his way over to the restaurant. We talked about the day’s coverage and decided we had pretty much covered what we could.  After notifying our offices that coverage for the day was pretty much over (barring any unexpected developments), we headed home.  Coverage would resume tomorrow and continue for some time.

The San Bernardino attack turned out to be the second worse terrorist attack in the US since September 11, 2001.  14 people killed 22 wounded.  Two terrorist (a US husband and Pakistani wife) who had vowed affiliation to ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) had killed his work colleagues before both were killed in a shoot-out with police.


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