By Trevor Busch
As Taber marked an unfortunate milestone in late April reflecting on the 20th anniversary of the 1999 W.R. Myers school shooting, Times editor Greg Price looked back on his own experiences in covering what became an international story as a cub reporter for a small-town weekly.
“I wasn’t on the job that long in my first stint with the Taber Times — a month and a half I think. I started with the paper in March of that year. I don’t remember exactly when the call came, but it must have been around lunch hour, because my sister, who was the head librarian at the time, was poking her head into the office to set up a lunch date with me. Right then the call came across the scanner, we sort of locked eyes — couldn’t believe what we were hearing — and I basically just said ‘I gotta go, sis’, grabbed the camera bag, and headed out the door.”
The recent school shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado prior to the tragedy in Taber probably played a part in inflaming opinions about media coverage, and Price — who was the first photographer on the scene before the later media circus descended on Taber — bore some of the brunt of this anger.
“I do remember using a really long lens — I wasn’t trying to get inside the school — I was standing far away across the street by a car. There was a woman that day that knocked my camera out of my hand and told me ‘you’re the reason this happens.’ To this day I don’t know who that woman was exactly, but I imagine she was talking about the fact that Columbine just happened, I think a couple of weeks earlier. For a guy that had only been on the job for a month and half, that kind of shook me up a bit.”
Price remembers a heavy police presence at the school in the wake of the shooting, and witnessing desperate parents seeking any information on the status of their children.
“All day that day, our phone lines, every single line was taken up all day long. Inquiries from other media, inquiries from concerned parents, just looking for details. It was on a Wednesday, the paper had just come out.”
Allegations at the time from other media that Times editorial staff soft-pedelled coverage of the tragedy simply didn’t understand the situation at the paper, according to Price.
“One thing that always bugged me about that situation was there was some fellow people in the business around in southern Alberta saying we didn’t chase that story hard enough when it first hit. Well, you have to take things in context. The publisher and editor were at a conference when this hit, they were out of town. And our paper had just come out, we’re a weekly. Within two days we came out with a special supplement just involving the shooting. It was an extra that we whipped up in two days, and it talked more about the healing process, services that were available for people to cope with such a traumatic experience. We were sort of ground zero for our other fellow news outlets in the chain, where people were walking in and out non-stop, using our equipment for photos and chasing down stories and things like that. We could steer people in the right direction, but we were so busy those first couple of days.”
Covering the issue comprehensively as the community’s publication was an extremely difficult balancing act, and backlash against the local paper as a convenient target for people’s anger towards the media in general was pronounced, contends Price.
“A tragic, nationwide incident like this is a lot easier to cover in a large urban environment, because you have that natural buffer zone of hundreds of thousands of people. In a small town like this, these are the people you see at the grocery store on a weekly basis, at sporting events. The Toronto’s and the Vancouver’s and the Calgary’s could sort of swoop in and get their 15 minutes and get out, and it’s us that have to pick up the pieces afterwards. There were sources that dried up for months because of that incident, because of the distrust. The media — at the time — did sort of take on the role of being viewed as vultures. We did receive emails and faxes and stuff like that — hate mail, whatever you want to call it — because we’re the local media that everyone knows about.”
Another incident involving Price displays the sensitivity in the community that continued to escalate in the days following the shooting, even in taking a photograph of a simple memorial.
“It was shortly afterwards where I got a call from a school board trustee saying there was a wonderful sort of flower remembrance display out in the hallway at Myers school. They thought it would be a quite beautiful photo to shoot for the newspaper. Would I have double checked now with 20 years of experience under my belt? Yes. But at the time, I thought I had clearance. I walked in there — and it said ‘no media’ on the door. I obviously didn’t (have clearance), because as soon as I put my camera bag down and started taking photos, there was several angry teenagers yelling profanities at me telling me to get out. I can’t remember to this day if it was a police officer or hired security, but someone escorted me out the door, and I was followed by the angry teenagers. Everyone was on edge at that point.”
Price traces some of the ill feelings towards the media back to how the story was covered by larger organizations.
“I do believe it was the lack of sensitivity displayed by some media outlets in handling the situation. There’s people I know of in the community, major news outlets were phoning them up at all hours, and they had unlisted numbers. It’s that balance; you’re there to do a job as a news outlet, but that doesn’t change the fact that the community was suffering at the time. I imagine people stepped over the line numerous times in their duties.”
Years later, while being interviewed about the tragedy by a Calgary documentary crew, Price betrayed his irritation at some of the leading questions he was asked.
“I think we’ve finally shaken that moniker, but there was a Calgary documentary crew that came down here and interviewed me, I think it was for the 10-year anniversary, and I wasn’t overly happy with the way the questioning was going. They kept saying ‘how do you feel about Taber being known as the town of the school shooting?’, and I said we’re known for Cornfest, we’re known for our ag industry. I worded my response this way: how many shootings do you see in Calgary on a yearly basis? And is Calgary known as the city of shootings? No. This was one isolated incident in a small farming community. The law of averages says that bad things are going to happen in any community, so I thought it was unfair to be branded that way.”
From inside the community, Price understands the reluctance of many to speak about the issue, and the fatigue involved with constantly referencing the school shooting and its inclusion as part of collective cultural memory.
“From a media standpoint, maybe a little bit of innocence died that day, in the sense that there’s always that assumption that you’re wanting to bring out the worst angle in an article. Even if it’s something positive you’re writing, maybe it’s not positive in the way that they see it. There’s even paranoia over that.”
“It’s understandable, that hesitation. How far down the road are we going to go until we stop bringing this up?”
At the time of the tragedy in 1999, Price admits he felt unduly branded by many in the public as an unscrupulous member of the media, but his understanding of the incident and human nature has since evolved.
“I have to admit, I was quite angered and flustered with the backlash we were getting over things that we didn’t even do, to the point that I had a column I had wrote — it’s the first time in my 20-plus years of journalism that I’ve seen a column get axed and not see the light of day — because I was feeling some natural anger towards the community that was lashing back at us over things that we didn’t even do, because we were getting grouped in with all the larger urban media. We had a psychologist come in, we were all on edge. The phones were lit up for a two weeks straight right after the shooting happened. Being an extremely green reporter at the time, I think I would have handled it better now than I did then.”
Price was careful to dispel any myth that may still exist that Times editorial staff profited from the community’s tragedy, even though they certainly could have.
“There were people offering financial compensation for 30 second interviews, and access, and photos that could have been sold. We don’t make much money in this business — and that money sure could have come in handy — but we just all mutually agreed that we would not be. We didn’t want to profit off of it, and we always said at that time: we’re there to report the news, not be the news. They were always asking us how the community is feeling right now. And to tell you the truth, if that incident were to happen today as opposed to then, maybe I would do an interview because I feel like I’m part of the community now, where I can give observation. But then, you’re asking a person that’s been part of the community for six weeks how the town is feeling? I didn’t feel like I was qualified to answer such a question.”
Many people believe the media only focuses on negative stories, but Price contends — certainly in the case of weekly community newspapers — this is definitely more fallacy than reality.
“I think it’s part of human nature. We see it all the time on a micro level here at the Taber Times, where you’ll get 10 complaints about a controversial story — and that’s our job, we have to write the good news and the bad news — but the calls that we get at our office are the complaints about the negative stories. You get the odd positive one, but you get 10 negative calls to one positive. When you’ve written something controversial, a court case, or the Community Standards Bylaw, things like that, you get calls and people coming into the office all the time, but you don’t get the ‘great job on raising awareness about this community group’ very often outside the group you were profiling. People think about picking up the phone when they’re angry, but they don’t think always about it when they’re happy.”
’Selling newspapers’ is the sensationalistic go-to for many who are less than impressed by the media’s coverage of an issue, but this perception should be tempered by a good deal of subjective analysis for situations like the Taber school shooting.
“People always say you wrote that story to sell newspapers,” said Price. “I don’t know about any other newspapers, but our paper gets sold for a buck. Say we sell 1,000 extra papers, that’s a $1,000. But what if the controversy of the story that you wrote loses you an advertiser that spent $1,000? The really controversial stories can have you either gain or lose advertisers. We’re just there to report the news, and we can’t be scared and go off into a corner, anything that’s even semi-controversial you don’t report on. You’re not doing yourself or your readership any favours by doing that. If we write too many controversial stories we’re just ambulance chasers trying to sell papers. If we write too many positive stories we’re just a fluff paper that doesn’t tackle the really hard issues. At times it’s a no-win situation. All we can do is just stay in the trenches and do our jobs the best way that we can.”
In the ensuing years, Price has commented extensively on the issue of gun violence and school shootings in the United States and elsewhere, and admits his experiences in 1999 helped motivate him to speak out on such topics.
“I’ve never been one to shy away from controversial things. But it was sort of a baptism on that day because six weeks in, you’re thrown into the deep end of having to approach people in very uncomfortable situations. Is there any harder (journalistic) experiences than trying to address community members after such a tragedy? It’s thickened the skin a lot from a journalistic perspective.”
In a larger sense since 1999, the tendency of outside media to focus or highlight issues in Taber and area that are negative in nature only reinforces Price’s perception that cherry picking for headlines does much more damage to the reputation of media.
“They only pick up the negative, in that we’re the ‘Footloose’ town, we’re the town known for the school shooting, we’re the town known for the gay Pride flag being burned, we’re the town known for the Community Standards Bylaw, the bomb threat town. When that’s all that the other news outlets pick up, it almost gets translated on to us. All the Taber Times is, is negative. No. We cover community events all the time in the evening. We do articles on non-profit organizations and inspirational people in the community. We cover school sports. We do all of this stuff, but the larger urban media outlets only pick up on those negative things for the most part. But that doesn’t make us all that we are. I’m not saying ignore and forget all of this stuff, because if you do, you’re not learning anything. With some of the negative stuff that we have reported on, are we evolving and choosing to learn from these instances, or are we staying status quo? And at least with the tragic school shooting, I think we have evolved, we have grown, we have learned for the better.”