On Aug. 3, 2019, an alleged white supremacist shot and killed people at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. Twenty-three people died and many were injured in what was described as the deadliest attack on Latinos in modern U.S. history.
At the forefront of coverage were the journalists of the El Paso Times, part of the USA Today Network, who worked tirelessly to cover the shooting and aftermath. This was their community that was devastated, and the newsroom remained on the story long after national media outlets packed up their equipment and left.
“Even though other things have happened this year, there was always a lingering cloud of that day,” said Briana Sanchez, a photojournalist at the El Paso Times. “There’s always been that lingering feeling of mourning, still.”
A year later, staff at the Gannett-owned newspaper are still grappling with what they’d witnessed while also covering the tragedy’s ripple effect as best they can in a pandemic. Marking the anniversary is a 12-page special section published Sunday, which included updates on survivors and Walmart employees, an art exhibit for items left at a makeshift memorial at the store, and reflections on the racist motive behind that day. Authorities believe alleged killer Patrick Crusius wrote a manifesto that railed against a “Hispanic invasion.” The victims who died in the attack were from the U.S., Mexico, and Germany.
“I couldn’t have been more proud with what they did,” enterprise editor Codell Rodriguez said of the staff’s anniversary coverage. “The thing I noticed the most about the reporters is how determined they were to do right by the subject matter and make sure the story was just as good as possible. I think that shows.”
Rodriguez said he began brainstorming ideas for the anniversary back in June and met with executive editor Tim Archuleta and fellow editor Samuel Gaytan. More story ideas were pitched by staff, assignments were doled out and everyone got to work.
Mark Lambie, who has been a photojournalist at the El Paso Times since 2001, said the newsroom’s focus for anniversary coverage was not to make anyone relive what happened on Aug. 3, 2019, but to focus on healing. Lambie’s photos of distraught Walmart employees comforting one another after the shooting captured the raw emotion and horror of that day, and were later picked up by major outlets like The New York Times and Associated Press. He recalled being in a state of shock for days.
“I think that helped us out a lot in talking to families. It certainly helped me out a lot because I didn’t want to go through that again,” Lambie said of focusing on recovery rather than details of the tragedy. “You listen to all those stories. You interview all these family members: That’s 23 funerals, it’s 23 memorials, it’s 23 Masses. We wanted to focus on where we are now, rather than going back and reopening all those wounds.”
Lambie and Sanchez, the only two photographers on staff, teamed up for a few portraits of survivors and those who had lost loved ones in the mass shooting. One was of Michelle Grady, a Black woman shot multiple times outside the Walmart. In the portrait, Grady is in the pews of her church, Prince of Peace Christian Fellowship. She is holding a red Bible. A large poster is positioned behind her with an outline of Texas and “El Paso Strong” in cursive at the center.
Sanchez said she had been talking with Grady’s father and local pastor, Michael Grady, for a week leading up to the assignment. At one point it was unclear whether Michelle Grady was going to agree to being photographed, but in the end, she did.
“We wanted to show this incredibly strong person, and really highlight how brave and how strong she is,” said Sanchez, an El Paso native. “It was very overwhelming because it meant that people trusted me. It meant that they felt safe with me.”
Staff reporter Lauren Villagran wrote a piece that anchored the special section and led the newspaper’s 1A. “What should be a time for collective healing is, for many, marred by the divisions forced by the coronavirus — restrictions on gatherings of friends and family, a border largely closed to binational traditions,” Villagran wrote. “This week there will be no spontaneous embraces between strangers, no gathering close to hear a corrida written for lives lost. There will be drive-through and socially distant memorials. There will be calls for a reckoning with the country’s unresolved struggle with racism, highlighted by this mass shooting on the U.S.-Mexico border.”
The veteran journalist also wrote a heart-wrenching profile of survivor Mario De Alba, a Mexican man who is still fighting to recover from the effects of a bullet destroying his insides. He was shot in the back as he shielded his wife and 10-year-old daughter and has been hospitalized for months in Chihuahua City, Mexico. Villagran said a source in Ciudad Juárez connected her to the family. She had only a few days to work on the story, which details the toll on De Alba’s family and the mounting hospital bills his wife is faced with.
“I just feel like it’s really important for the world to know that he is still hospitalized, for the community to know what that family is still dealing with,” Villagran said. “It’s really important to remember that this is a crime that didn’t just impact El Paso. It impacted two countries, three states. This is an area that is really geographically and culturally unique.”
Villagran said she is proud of her staff’s anniversary coverage, which involved a lot of emotional labor.
“It makes me sad that what we just went through isn’t unique to our newsroom. Dayton, Ohio, had a mass shooting the day after our mass shooting,” Villagran said. “Unfortunately, we’re not unique and there are newsrooms all over the country that have had to deal with covering the tragedy that is a mass shooting.”
Nobody wants to cover a mass shooting, Sanchez said.
“The biggest takeaway that I’ve had from all of this is the humanity in all of it,” she added. “You just have to be caring and loving as a human first, before your job. And that’s what’s difficult. Whenever you have to deal with sensitive stories like this, I think it’s really important that we never lose sight of the fact that our job is to serve the communities we’re reporting to.”
Amaris Castillo is a writing/research assistant for the NPR Public Editor and a contributor to Poynter.org. She’s also the creator of Bodega Stories and a very tired mom. Amaris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @AmarisCastillo.