Tarleton State students lead coverage in national story

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Collegians cover “American Sniper” murders

By Sarah Maben

When a former Navy SEAL sniper and his vet friend are shot in your proverbial backyard, you hope the student journalists will mobilize to cover the going-to-go national story and forgo that Super Bowl party.

TNSsnipercoverage(1)“All of our reporters are at church” is how Sunday morning began when Texan News Service adviser Dan Malone called my house. The news conference about the murder of Chris Kyle and Chad Littlefield was scheduled for 2 p.m., and we were eager to help students with the unfolding story.

The story: “America’s deadliest sniper” Chris Kyle and fellow Iraq War veteran Chad Littlefield were killed Saturday at Rough Creek Lodge, in Glen Rose, Texas, about 30 miles from our Stephenville campus.

Our sports reporter, Caleb McCaig, had posted a first story about the deaths of former Tarleton student Kyle and Littlefield Saturday night with preliminary details. After a tip, he pursued the story. It wasn’t a scoop, but Texan News Service was on the front edge of the story.

After church services, reporters mobilized after calls from Malone and Editor-in-Chief Landon Haston. They headed to the news conference where all of our student platforms were represented. Team members were capturing video, live-blogging, snapping pictures and taking notes. Haston was writing requests under the state open records law for additional resources, like the offense report of the shooting, the arrest report of the suspect and an audio recording of a 911 call.

In the meantime, staff writer K’Leigh Bedingfield was busy writing a story from an interview with one of the victims five days prior to the shootings. We believe this was the last interview Kyle gave and the content was surreal. When Kyle’s book “American Sniper” topped the charts last year, Bedingfield interviewed him for a story. The interview on Jan. 28, 2013, was a follow-up because Kyle had been recently named a distinguished Tarleton State alumnus.

Haston, Malone and I listened to the audio to see if it would be appropriate to post in its entirety on the Texan News website. In a more chilling moment, Bedingfield asks Kyle what he wants his legacy to be. He replies, “I would love for people to be able to think of me as a guy who stood up for what he believed in and helped make a difference for the veterans.” He also talks about taking vets on hunting trips to help with post-combat issues.

And it was on one such trip that the shooting took place. Eddie Routh, a veteran who Kyle and Littlefield took to Rough Creek Lodge in order to help him, was arrested on charges of capital murder.

Reporters from YahooNews! and the New York Times are asking for Bedingfield’s interview. A short story with an audio file of the entire interview are posted and then picked up by national outlets.

Now it is Friday, less than a week from the original story and students continue to work on follow-up stories. The Texan News Service site has seen web traffic like never before (18,000 downloads of the interview file alone) and has been picked up by other news outlets. We want our journalists to seize this new audience with fresh content and not rest on their laurels. Students are securing wi-fi so they can live-blog from the memorial service at Cowboys Stadium next week.

The Texan News Service team will continue to cover the story, competing with the pros, as it unfolds in the weeks and months ahead. A lasting impression for Haston, the editor, has been how he and fellow students came together on Super Bowl weekend to prepare news for multiple platforms. Some of the challenges have been dealing with staff emotions and being “thrown into real-world journalism.” One of the lessons learned for Haston was how the students really became a team of journalists through this experience, using various forms to deliver the news. He suggested getting the whole team involved for additional ideas and story angles. He said, “Don’t be afraid to jump in head first.”

As for instruction, this has been a case filled with lessons to be shared with advisers and students:

  • Immediacy. We seem to beat our heads against this barrier more than I would like to admit. The Super Bowl party must wait. Yes, 10 minutes makes a difference in a news cycle. Tweets and updates must be made as soon as possible.
  • The macabre and professional distance. For reporters, death is part of the job and we were reminded that our students are not yet calloused to these types of stories. In a staff meeting following the initial coverage we were able to talk about how to handle tragic news and how it can affect you as a person.
  • Multiplatform. Students told the story via special broadcast, live-blog, online news portal and in social media. We were competing with other news outlets and posted our news on all of our outlets. We were able to show what a multiplatform story looks like to our classes in real-time. Having the interview on audio was more valuable than just having a reporter’s notebook.
  • Student-run. In the excitement of a national story, advisers must remember to guide and not do, and that is hard when your inner journalist kicks in.
  • Areas for improvement. In a breaking news story, you can easily see the weaknesses in your system. For us, we saw a need to have a reporter on-call each weekend. And, we want the students to find a police scanner app for the newsroom computer. Cross-training is another must – our new website demands more know-how, which more students need to learn.
  • Transparency. The audio interview with Kyle was posted in its entirety. It’s not a perfect interview and Kyle even pokes a bit of fun at the school honoring him as an alumnus when he did not graduate. While unfavorable to our university, it is part of the story, as we explained to the students.
  • The unusual calls. So far, two suspicious calls have been directed at one of our reporters and instructor Kathryn Jones. One caller asked the student to go somewhere private so he could tell her a story. He kept repeating it and would not give a name. Another caller said some SEALS were going to be very unhappy with the coverage. As a news team, the students talked about safety protocols and newsroom access.
  • Records. When a big nasty spot news story hits, someone needs to start thinking documents on Day 1—the professional organizations will be. And, students should be too, so they will get the records when they are released to everyone else. (There’s that immediacy, again.) It helps if staff members have already learned how to file requests for records and are not having to learn on the fly in a hectic newsroom.
Dan Malone
Dan Malone
Sarah Maben

Dan Malone contributed to this article. Maben and Malone are assistant professors at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas. Their students manage Texan News Service, a regional wire service, available at www.texannews.net.