As vigil turned violent, an intern acted on instincts and got the story
Maura Currie's first field assignment as an intern at Georgia Public Broadcasting was a big one. She was going to be covering a candlelight vigil celebrating the life of Scout Schultz. Then, that vigil turned violent.
Three days before, Schultz, a Georgia Institute of Technology student who identified as non-binary, called the police and reported someone walking around with a gun on campus. Schultz, who used non-gender pronouns such as singular they, had an unopened pocket knife and was shot and killed by university police. Suicide notes were later found in Schultz's room.
Poynter talked with Currie about her experience that night.
What was the campus environment like leading up to the vigil?
Leading up to the vigil there was definitely a significant feeling of unrest on campus. Students were feeling anger toward not only the police, but the very sudden, very intense media coverage on campus. The university’s Pride Alliance organized the vigil for Monday, two days after the shooting on Sept. 16.
We were sitting in our pitch meeting Monday morning and I volunteered to gather some audio since I live 10 minutes from where the vigil was taking place. The afternoon newscast producer, Stephen Fowler, also volunteered to come take pictures with me. We went assuming it was going to just be vigil coverage and had to adapt our plan as we realized it was going to be a more prolonged and violent event.
What processes did you use for reporting the LGBT issues in this story?
The pronoun issue has proven to be an interesting thing to report on. Particularly when you are writing for radio, since you know that your audience is going to likely be casually listening while probably focusing on something like driving. When we see something like "they" being used to refer to a singular person while simultaneously referring to "they" as the plural police officers, you have to make that differentiation when you're speaking and it becomes pretty difficult. We had some discussions when we were scripting on how to use they versus when to use something like the surname or the first name.
Covering LGBT issues generally is something people care very passionately about on (Georgia Tech’s) campus. So you know when you are covering an issue like this that it’s going to be political. It’s going to be a matter of student identity. At Tech, we don't have a ton of protests. So it was interesting to watch very passionate, and frankly disenfranchised, groups of people's issues be brought to a head in a very volatile event.
Can you walk me through the event itself?
For the field assignment, I went out with our intern kit. Basically I have a little Tascam field recorder, a broadcast microphone (with a fancy GPB bumper I was really excited about) a cable maybe a foot long and a pair of Sennheiser headphones. That’s basically the extent of what I had. Stephen had his personal camera with no flash.
CREDIT MAURA CURRIE & STEPHEN FOWLER | GPB NEWS
I assumed initially that it was going to consist of more one-on-one dialoguing. The vigil was outdoors and very quiet so the sounds we ended up getting were a lot of traffic, crickets and people murmuring. There was a lot going on in the background so that kit wasn't necessarily particularly well-suited. During the vigil I was situated off to the side; we were corralled by Institute communications so there was a line we could not cross. I was trying my best to get usable audio while Stephen was wandering around with his camera taking pictures.
The vigil is pretty brief, maybe half an hour. Right after it ends there is a musical performance and a moment of silence. Students started getting up and expressing how unhappy they were. Shouting how Scout was an activist, Scout was someone who was a staunch proponent of protest. Scout would have wanted us to take action. They wouldn't have just wanted us to sit here. That discussion went on with people shouting at each other in this little outdoor amphitheater. In a lot of those recordings we can't identify anyone who's shouting so it’s basically anonymous. After maybe 10 minutes of back and forth a smaller group starts assembling toward the front. They have masks, drums and banners. They start chanting.
At this point we were visited by people we believe to be Antifa. We don't necessarily know who they were but they called themselves Antifa. The majority of the people I had been talking with actually weren't Georgia Tech students. They were locals from Atlanta, members of the transgender community, or the LGBT+ community we have here. There was a lady in a wheelchair who must have been 80 years old. The amphitheater was holding about 300 people and once Antifa showed up and started banging their drums those people started to dissipate very quickly.
Somewhere in my head I was overwhelmed. The sound that I remember most vividly is when they were screaming about the media presence. There were a lot of TV cameras and big flashy lights during the candlelit vigil. They were upset about that. During all of this I was wedged between the vigil attendees and a fountain. So while I 100 percent understood their concerns, when the protesters started getting aggressive toward the media I remember preparing for what to do with my audio equipment if I got shoved in the water. (Basically just throwing it.) They were shouting things like “You pigs! This media circus is ridiculous.” I don't really know how I had the presence of mind to start recording the Antifa chants.
When that group of protesters set off across campus, I was told to not go after them. I stuck around and started talking to stragglers — people who were very upset and overwhelmed by the perversion of what had been a very nice vigil. When we got the emergency stay in place alert I sheltered with some friends while Stephen was out there getting photos of people burning a cop car.
GTENS ALERT: Stay inside due to violent protests on campus. Avoid Hemphill Avenue. Stay inside until told otherwise.
— Georgia Tech Police (@GaTechPD) September 19, 2017
As a journalist and a community member, can you talk about what it was like to report on something like this happening on your campus?
It was interesting certainly. You’ll note in the piece where I’m talking to Rickey (Bevington, a station anchor) and Stephen, I start out being very objective and just describing what I was seeing during the situation. We had a debate while we were scripting out the piece on whether we should keep me as just an objective onlooker or whether we should try to have me dive into how it felt to be a student in this community and watch it happen. I’m glad we got the chance to dive into that dichotomy a little bit. I got to present that interesting view of someone who is trying to objectively cover this but can't entirely because this is my home. I’m a junior at Georgia Tech and I live a block in one direction from where Scout was shot and a block in the other direction from where Antifa lit the car on fire.
As someone who is learning on the job it was a formative experience for sure. I think it was a lesson for me about what journalism entails. That you have to try to be objective even when you're being heckled by your peers, you can't stop recording and say “No I’m one of you. Don't do this. I’m in your classes.” Your job in that moment is just being a reporter.
How has your campus and community reacted to your reporting?
I have been very pleasantly surprised by how well this has been received, particularly among people in the Tech community. I’ve gotten people who are strangers messaging me personally saying "Hey I really like what you are doing. Thank you for this." I had a student who I don't know share the post on his page and tag me and say: “Thank you for sharing the perspective of a Tech student in this very strange and scary time for our campus.” So in the microcosm of Georgia Tech, I certainly feel like I did good. I was surprised by how well I did given the volatile circumstances and that I was learning on the job about the technical limitations of the recording equipment. Figuring it out for the first time under any circumstances was going to be kind of a mess. But doing it in the field, I was happily surprised by the quality of the audio and the quality of the questions I was asking.