‘Who says I’m not a journalist?’ asks Boulder shooting YouTube streamer
A special edition of "Inside the News in Colorado"
‘There's a lot of people who want to watch this right now’
Typically, when Dean Schiller is looking to film “something going on” that involves law enforcement activity he seeks it out by listening to a police scanner. On Monday, the something came to him.
Schiller live-streams his interactions with Colorado cops and broadcasts them over a YouTube channel called ZFG Videography. Some of his previous work fits in with a movement in which people film and post videos of police officers in public, and sometimes sue on First Amendment grounds if and when improperly confronted.
“This time I just happened to be shopping,” he told media outside the Boulder King Soopers about his proximity to the nation’s latest mass shooting. “I heard several really loud bangs, sounded like gunshots. ... I fired up the livestream.”
What happened next was surreal. For the following three hours, upwards of 30,000 people watched in real-time as Schiller live-streamed graphic images of motionless bodies and unfolding mayhem. He was in the store as shots rang out. He warned others outside about a shooter indoors and asked an elderly couple if they were OK. He filmed as police in tactical gear swarmed the grocery store with guns drawn and as they scrambled up on the roof and ringed the area with SWAT vehicles. He captured an image of cops escorting from the building a heavyset bearded man clad in his underwear, one leg red with blood. “They’ve got him in handcuffs so it leads me to believe that this is a suspect,” Schiller said as he filmed. He shouted questions at police asking if they caught the shooter. “Everyone wants to know,” he yelled. “The world is watching.” Overhead, a news chopper surveyed the scene.
Police say at least 10 people were killed including an officer; they have a suspect in custody.
Schiller’s live video, peppered with his own commentary, speculation, and profane outbursts at police who tried to move him from the scene, rocketed around social media — but largely outside the feeds and coverage of many professional journalists and news organizations.
Personally, I tweeted some limited information about the livestream as Schiller was was filming, but didn’t link to it. I figured if someone wanted to find it they could do so easily enough. (I first saw it from a Twitter user who posted a link in a reply to the official Boulder police Twitter account.) At the time, I just didn’t feel comfortable sharing a link myself. Meanwhile, I was glued to it.
As the live-stream reached its first hour, the official Twitter account of Colorado’s Division of Homeland Security & Emergency Management tweeted: “Media covering Boulder active shooting -- when you post or share the location of law enforcement responding you are putting them at risk. Do not share their locations in real-time for their safety.”
In 2019, when Westword reported on a lawsuit Schiller filed against Boulder police for false arrest after he filmed an officer on a public sidewalk outside a jail, the alternative weekly described him as a “rebel videographer” and “citizen journalist.”
Throughout his live-stream, which offered the most compelling if unfiltered realtime information and commentary I could find, Schiller said he was engaged in reporting.
“I’m a journalist,” he shouted at officers who asked him to relocate. “There’s a lot of people who want to watch this right now, so I’m willing to risk my life for this. I’m doing a public service.”
About an hour in, as he zipped around a parking lot in search of better angles to film, he told his viewers, “I’m just going to keep reporting. We’ll see what happens.”
Later, he flipped officers the bird and berated them when they tried to move him back. “I’m a fucking journalist,” he yelled at some of them. “I have the right to be here … you guys are fucking assholes.” When one officer asked his last name he responded “Fuck Off is my last name.”
As the scene calmed, TV journalists approached him and offered their business cards, requested to use his footage, and interviewed him as an eye-witness source. “That was a great live stream, man,” someone told him as he wrapped up one interview. All the while he kept his camera rolling for a YouTube audience.
"Some of these guys, they sell their footage,” Schiller told one media representative in an interview at the scene when asked how things operate in his world. “As much as I'd love to sell my footage I know I’m not a professional and haven't established myself with any credentials in this field,” he added, “but sure, I’d love to get to that point in a career.”
Following his mini-media tour, it became clear some of those who were following along online were also recognizing him in real life on the scene.
“Yo, brother,” a young man called out from across a road at one point. “Amazing work ... been watching you since the first minute, bro. Incredible.”
Later, when Schiller arrived at a second location following a tip and a lift from a fan to where police had swarmed a residence, an older man, sounding incredulous, asked him, “Didn’t I see you on TV?”
That night, ABC News would air Schiller’s footage during its national newscast. The Washington Post would lead with his account. Multiple news outlets would reference him and what he captured in various ways. “A YouTube user,” is how The Denver Post described him on first-reference.
Here’s how The Associated Press handled his account in its initial coverage:
A man who had just left the store in Boulder, Dean Schiller, told The Associated Press that he heard gunshots and saw three people lying face down, two in the parking lot and one near the doorway. He said he “couldn't tell if they were breathing.” Video posted on YouTube showed one person on the floor inside the King Soopers store and two more outside on the ground, but the extent of their injuries wasn’t clear. What sounds like two gunshots are also heard at the beginning of the video.
In the coming days, Schiller is likely to find himself the center of plenty of media attention. He could come in for criticism for some of his behavior throughout the broadcast. Some might say YouTube or other platforms shouldn’t allow his footage to remain online if it shows dead bodies. (The video was still available in the following days but carried a note on YouTube saying it had “been identified by the YouTube community as inappropriate or offensive to some audiences.”)* Others might scold him for potentially giving away the tactical response, location or strategies of law enforcement during an active-shooter situation, like they criticize some credentialed mainstream reporters for live-tweeting what they’re hearing on police scanners. Credentialed journalists could say his behavior and that like it could cause issues for them with police when identifying themselves while covering chaotic scenes.
It’s worth recalling how during protests in Denver this summer, police officers argued they had trouble identifying who were members of the press (as they understood them) and who might not have been. Denver’s department of public safety director, Murphy Robinson, later discussed it on a video call with media. There were “a lot of people out there who said they were press that may not have been press,” he said while adding he knew it wasn’t his job to define “who press are.” When Robinson personally asked one person who they were with during the protests, he said he was told, “I’m with my family newsletter.”
So no doubt questions will arise about whether Schiller is or is not a journalist like he said he was during his hours of broadcast Monday. He seemed to even anticipate it. “Who says I’m not a journalist?” he asked at one point during his hours-long, adrenalin-fueled run as he racked up the views.
In The Elements of Journalism, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel write, “We think this is the wrong question.” They go on:
The question people should ask is whether or not the person in question is doing journalism. Does the work proceed from an adherence to the principles of truthfulness, an allegiance to citizens, and to informing rather than manipulating— concepts that set journalism apart from other forms of communication? ... The new delivery systems and formats may be journalism or they may be political activism. They may be lie-mongering or they may be incisive academic debate. The issue is not where the information appears. The issue is the nature of the work itself. ... But communication and journalism are not interchangeable terms. Anyone can be a journalist. Not everyone is.”
Despite his belligerence toward officers, Schiller was informing rather than manipulating. He might have passed on some information to others as he heard it without a strict process for verification, but that’s different than lie-mongering. Was he adhering to an allegiance to citizens during his livestream? I’d say so.
Watching live on YouTube for those few hours on Monday was perhaps the most surreal experience I’ve ever had following a breaking news event, and I certainly feel more knowledgeable about what happened than had I not seen it. I also know it’s not for everyone.
In our disrupted digital age, it doesn’t have to be.
‘A tragedy and a nightmare’
For Tuesday headlines, Colorado’s newspapers used parts of a quote from Boulder County District Attorney Michael Dougherty who had said during a press briefing “This is a tragedy and a nightmare for Boulder County.”
The Boulder Daily Camera led simply with “A Tragedy.” The Denver Post led with “A Nightmare.” The Longmont Times Call went with “A tragedy and a nightmare.”
The police scanner debate again
News organizations handle differently the way they report what they’re hearing over public police radio channels during an active-shooter situation.
“We are not in the business of airing scanner traffic during an active situation,” read a note under one broadcast at Denver’s KUSA 9News. On air, their journalists discussed why.
“Quite frequently it’s inaccurate because it is such initial information. And even when it is correct it can put both civilians and officers at risk,” said 9News anchor Kyle Clark. “Listening to that radio traffic and sharing it after the event, though, gives us some perspective on what police were up against.”
The Colorado Sun, for instance, produced a story hours after the shootings, saying a reporter “listened to archived emergency radio scanner traffic to paint a picture of how the police response to Monday’s shooting unfolded in real time.”
It used to be that newsrooms were some of the only places with police scanners in them, but technology has evolved where almost anyone can access it from a smartphone if they know how. That’s unless police encrypt such radio traffic, which they have done across Colorado in recent years to the chagrin of journalists.
As credentialed journalists have become less of a gatekeeper in the digital age — they both compete with and rely on information from people like Schiller and others in real time — it can put pressure on them to react faster when handling information they know their audience might be getting elsewhere.
A classic school-shooting debate played out in South Carolina six years ago when a daily newspaper leapfrogged the county coroner by releasing the name of a victim (for the first time he could recall) largely because that information was already “out there” and relying simply on “sources.” (The newspaper was right, and probably had legit sources, but it broke new ground at the time. I’ve also seen journalists in recent years post on their own social media pages about information, like, say, a bomb threat at a school, when their own newspaper won’t report it because of a newsroom policy of not doing so.)
One TV journalist in Colorado pushed back at officials about the above statement, asking if the agency could substantiate it. “When has there been an example of an active shooter pulling up a reporter's Twitter feed or livestream to monitor police actions?” asked KRDO-TV digital director Andrew McMillan in Colorado Springs.
“The public info officers in Colorado have worked with Denver media since Columbine on agreements related to not showing tactical operations in live time for officer and victim safety,” the account replied. “And most of our reporters support this agreement.”
It was almost a decade ago when the Boston Marathon bombing exposed a broader debate about ubiquitous police scanner traffic.
On Tuesday, Boulder DA Dougherty spoke to fast-paced information feeds and certain inaccuracies that had swirled online.
“There was a name going around social media and the media yesterday,” he said. “You will recognize that it’s not the individual who’s been charged. We don’t believe there was any connection whatsoever between those two individuals. So to the extent that that was reported on in the media and social media, I think people were doing their best to get information out but he does not appear to be connected to this at all.”
On interviewing eye witnesses
Colorado Community Media journalist David Gilbert reminded those covering the shooting yesterday about the potential long-term impacts of identifying eye-witnesses to gun violence in an age of conspiracy mongers, bad actors, and online harassment.
Gilbert linked to a 2017 story in The Guardian that led with an anecdote about a witness who appeared on TV following the Las Vegas mass shooting and what happened after. From the piece:
Two months later, [his] online reputation appears damaged beyond repair. Type [his name] into Google and YouTube, and the sites automatically suggest searches for “actor” and “fake”, leading to popular videos claiming he and his wounded friend were performers and that the Mandalay Bay tragedy that killed 58 people never happened. …
As record-breaking mass shootings have become a ritual of life in the US, survivors and victims’ families across the country have increasingly faced an onslaught of social media abuse and viral slander. Bullying from the ugliest corners of the internet overwhelms the grief-stricken as they struggle to cope with the greatest horror they’ve ever experienced.
That’s definitely something journalists should consider. And they might even impart it during interviews with those who might not be used to appearing in media if journalists intend to publish their name or likeness.
While plenty of witnesses appeared all over print and on TV yesterday, at least one source who offered one of the most prominent early details of the shooting seemed aware of the potential implications.
From The Denver Post’s early coverage, emphasis mine:
Two roommates who were buying pizza at the self-checkout watched the shooter come into the store. “He just came in and started shooting” without saying a word, one of them told The Denver Post on condition of anonymity to avoid national media attention. His roommate said the gunman “let off a couple of shots, then was silent, and then he let off a couple more. He wasn’t spraying.” (In a different version of the story the attribution reads “on condition of anonymity to avoid national publicity.”)
For more on best practices for reporting on incidents like yesterday’s, check out the DART Center for Journalism and Trauma.
* CORRECTION: A previous version of this story said the video was unavailable on YouTube. Users just had to click on a button to proceed to view it. Murphy Robinson is Denver’s public safety director, not the state’s.
More Colorado local media odds & ends
👁️ Columbia Journalism Review’s Jon Allsop rounded up more media angles to the Boulder shooting.
📺 FOX News didn’t air the Boulder shooting police briefing live, showing “its true colors,” CNN’s Oliver Darcy reported.
📢 Programming note: This newsletter coming out on Tuesday is super early, and will probably be the only one I send out this week, FYI.
🎙️ The City Cast Denver podcast launched early. “With the tragedy in #Boulder, it only felt right to put together a show about it,” said host Bree Davies.
💻 If you missed the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition’s Sunshine Week panel “Truth Be Told: The Proliferation of Online Misinformation and Disinformation and What We Can Do About It,” you can watch it here.
📚 Colorado’s media literacy bill passed the House, though Republicans tried to slow it down.
🗓️ Vail Daily’s editor reflected on a year covering COVID-19: “In one week, last spring, the Vail Daily lost about half of its advertising revenue. The fallout was brutal: reduced hours, furloughs and layoffs across our newsroom. … We’re proud that we reached a larger audience than we ever have, leading all Swift Communications and Colorado Mountain News Media properties in 2020 for page views and reader engagement.”
☀️ The Colorado Sun told readers this week it “offers a different experience online for members: No popups!”
🎥 A new trailer for Brian Malone’s documentary News Matters, which focuses on the loss of local news in Denver, is different than the first time you saw it in this newsletter.
❌ “Strike everything”: It looks like Democratic Sen. Kerry Donovan’s controversial bill aimed at curbing misinformation and “fake news” online is getting a massive makeover.
🆕 The board of Empowering Colorado last week voted to enact a freelance journalist hiring policy.
🕵️♂️ Award-winning veteran investigative reporter John Ferrugia is “joining COLab, the Colorado News Collaborative, a new nonprofit coalition of journalists from more than 100 news outlets statewide.”
🔎 What Ouray County needs “is for its public officials to do a better job of opening the curtains and allowing that light to illuminate their activities,” writes Plaindealer co-publisher Mike Wiggins.
💉 Denver Post disclosure: “Editor’s note: The reporter and photographer on this story received extra vaccine doses, after reporting this story, that clinic representatives offered because they needed to be used before going to waste.” (The move prompted PR pro Jeremy Story to post about it as his site.)
🔦 USA Today is the latest national outlet to spotlight important journalism Colorado College students are producing during the pandemic.
📰 Looks like the governor’s meat flap helped at least two local newspapers.
⛅ Colorado Newsline urges lawmakers to “stop the government from keeping finalist lists secret.”
💵 The Colorado Media Project is offering “grants of between $5,000 and $10,000 to Colorado journalism organizations that have existing, trusted relationships with communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.”
📈 Some of Colorado’s media moguls got richer during the pandemic, The Denver Post reports: “John Malone, chairman of Liberty Media, gained $2.3 billion over the past year … Pat Stryker, the medical technology heiress and Colorado’s richest woman, took in $900 million … media heir Gary Magness gained $500 million … Philip Anschutz … saw his net worth drop during the pandemic, from $11 billion to $10.1 billion.”
📱 Denver’s 5280 magazine is hiring a digital editor.
❄️ “We deal with heckling almost every day, so we are used to it and usually just laugh it off,” Evan Direnzo, a forecaster at the National Weather Service Boulder office, told the Coloradoan.
🗞️ A Denver Post paper carrier’s aim continues to impress.
I’m Corey Hutchins, instructor at Colorado College’s Journalism Institute, the Colorado-based contributor for Columbia Journalism Review’s United States Project, and a journalist for multiple news outlets. The Colorado Media Project, where I write case studies, is underwriting this newsletter, and my “Inside the News” column appears at COLab, both of which I sometimes write about here. (If you, too, would like to underwrite this newsletter, hit me up.) Follow me on Twitter, reply or subscribe to this weekly newsletter here, or e-mail me at CoreyHutchins [at] gmail [dot] com.