Breaking news at the local TV station usually translates to discrete events: a fire, a car chase, a robbery. But on April 16, 2007, NBC affiliate WSLS-TV in Roanoke, Va., was faced with covering the worst mass shooting in United States history—while it was unfolding—as well as its immediate aftermath.
“You have to have systems in place so that when something unprecedented happens, people know their roles and slip into them,” said John Carlin, the station’s news anchor and managing editor. “We get just enough practice for it that we knew what to do.”
Morning anchor Juliet Bickford was on-air when news of the shooting started to trickle in. She was quickly joined by 5:30 p.m. anchor Jay Warren, while Mr. Carlin and his counterpart, Karen McNew, scrambled in from home. Bureau reporters in Blacksburg, where the campus is located, were already feeding reports.
“We started responding to what it might be at first,” said Mr. Carlin. “At that point, all we knew was that there was some shooting. There was a massive police response well before the real information came out.”
Station manager Warren Fiihr, newsroom executive producer Jessica Ross, news director Shane Moreland and then-assignment editor Jerry Caldwell all slipped into position. The news team set up in the newsroom and tag-teamed wall-to-wall coverage from the morning of the shootings until midnight. While one team was on-air for 10 to 15 minutes, the other team would catch up with the latest news.
In the first day, Mr. Carlin said, they broke only for the first 15 minutes of “NBC Nightly News.” “Our viewers stayed on the shootings the whole time,” he said. “It was an unbelievable set of events.”
Weather conditions for coverage also were difficult. “It was an extremely windy day, and when you’re trying to microwave shots, it was difficult to get them out,” said Mr. Carlin.
Upping the tension was the fact that nearly everyone on the news team had significant ties to Virginia Tech. Mr. Warren and Mr. Carlin were adjunct professors at the university; Ms. McNew was an alumna. “We wondered, as the information started coming in slowly, is this one of our fellow faculty members [who was shot]? A student we know?” said Mr. Carlin. “You’re trying to do this marathon broadcast when this unbelievably tragic information is coming in and you’ve been in the chair for four, six, eight hours.”
The next day, by late morning, the news team was back to wall-to-wall coverage, which included President Bush’s visit to campus, the on-campus convocation and a candlelight vigil attended by thousands of people.
“The public is watching you gather news on the air,” said Mr. Carlin. “We’re learning the information as it’s being handed to us, and it’s trickling out on the air. You have to be so careful to say where we’re learning the news from, that we’re double-checking it. There was no alternative to go off the air and report it all when we were sure of it. We were completely transparent in what we were reporting.”