BOB GARFIELD: This week marks a solemn anniversary for the small town of Kirkwood, Missouri. Two years ago this weekend, a town resident named Charles “Cookie” Thornton walked into a routine Kirkwood City Council meeting and shot and killed several people. In total, seven people died from the injuries they sustained that night, including Thornton himself. It was pulp nonfiction of the sort that cable news can't get enough of.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: He opened fire, killing two police officers, two city council members, and the public -
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Once inside, witnesses say, Thornton immediately kills a second officer, then the public works director.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Mayor Mike Swoboda is in critical condition.
BOB GARFIELD: But for local journalists, the tragedy wasn't just a big story. It was personal. One of The Webster-Kirkwood Times’ four reporters was in the council chamber when the shooting happened, seated behind one of the council members who was shot to death. Meanwhile, the other reporters worked tirelessly to cover the shootings that night. Now, looking back, Times editor and publisher Don Corrigan says the incident changed him and his reporters forever, because the community was his own and the people killed were his friends, acquaintances and neighbors.
DON CORRIGAN: When you know these people, you've gone to lunch with them, you've been on a walking trail with them, you've talked to them at social occasions, it’s no longer a headline and words. It’s people you knew.
BOB GARFIELD: In what ways did this change just the world view of your reporters and editors? Has it altered, in general, everybody’s approach to journalism?
DON CORRIGAN: There’s not the same enthusiasm for the big story. We just recently had another workplace shooting here in St. Louis – three were killed, five were injured – and nobody wanted to really take on that assignment.
BOB GARFIELD: Killings have taken away your killer instinct.
DON CORRIGAN: Yeah, and it’s kind of interesting the night that it happened, when I got out there in front of City Hall I was surprised to be met by my student journalists who were out there. They were so excited about this big story, and they were going to have this story to be a part of their portfolio. And for me, I wasn't a reporter anymore. These were people who I knew who died, And I was proud of my students that they were out there in the wee hours of the night and talking to people but, at the same time, I saw reporters from a different viewpoint than I'd seen before.
BOB GARFIELD: On the subject of looking at journalism from a brand new point of view, you and your staff discovered what it’s like to be part of a story that the national press was interested in, as well. You had some good experiences and a whole mess of bad ones. Give me the highlights and lowlights.
DON CORRIGAN: Probably the low point for me was a call about 1:30, 2 in the morning after this had happened, and The CBS Morning Show wanted an interview with our reporter who witnessed this firsthand. And I said, I'll call her in the morning, she’s in no state to talk with anybody at this point, but I'll let her decide whether she wants to talk to you. And I don't want to really get down on the network in this case, ‘cause it may have just been an intern calling, but whoever it was just said, well, you have to understand that America wants to reach out to your reporter who went through this. I said, well, you’re going to have to wait ‘til the morning ‘til I have a chance to talk to her and see if she wants to do this. And they said, well, you don't understand, we go on the air in about three hours. We have to start arranging this now. And I said, well, that’s not my problem. And then it was sort of like they were upping the ante and saying, well, Katie Couric wants to reach out to your reporter. And I just said, look, I know you’re trying to do your job. I've sort of been there myself. Finally, this comes out: If I don't get this interview, my boss is going to kill me. I thought to myself, well, if your boss kills you, The Webster-Kirkwood Times will reach out to you.
[BOB LAUGHS] But they hung up the phone at that point. On the positive side, Chris Bury at ABC Nightline called me and wanted to do an interview. And I had a number of funerals to attend, and I just said, Chris, I just don't know that I can do this. And he said, you know what, don't worry about it. It’s more important to be human at this point. And that’s something I'll carry with me.
BOB GARFIELD: The shootings were a tragedy for your newsroom and also for the community at large, which is to say your readers. And I wonder how your readers have reacted to you? Has the, the tone or substance of the mail that you get changed in the intervening two years?
DON CORRIGAN: Some readers said, this is a crazy man, this is an aberration. Do not draw this out. Do not keep writing about racism charges in the community or how this had socio-economic overtones. And then there were others in the community who said, you have to keep writing about it. I mean, there was even questions about how do we cover Cookie Thornton’s funeral, the shooter. Where do we place that in the midst of all these other funerals? Should it even be in the paper? People were insulted that we covered it. But you know what? Cookie Thornton’s family and relatives were just as much victims as anybody else in this.
BOB GARFIELD: I'm curious, what do you think to be the journalistic moral of this story. What do you know now, having experienced this at your paper, that you just didn't have a clue about before?
DON CORRIGAN: Well, I've never subscribed to the idea that any reporter can be totally objective. It’s impossible to stay detached and objective and aloof from what happens to people in these situations. It’s not the right way to report. I know people, reporters who've been involved in shooting incidents that have gotten involved in the Brady anti-gun organization. Does that mean you shouldn't report on it? Does that mean your editor pulls you off on it? You may learn and know a lot more about what happened and why it happened because you got involved. In that sense, it sort of made me question some of the things that I was taught in journalism school about objectivity and detachment.
BOB GARFIELD: Well Don, thank you very much.
DON CORRIGAN: Thanks, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Don Corrigan is the editor and co-publisher of The Webster-Kirkwood Times. He wrote about the shootings and about how journalists can cope with trauma for Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism. [MUSIC/MUSIC UP AND UNDER]