ABC News spends a year in Uvalde documenting the pain of the families of the victims of the massacre
NEW YORK (AP) – After most high-profile shootings garner attention across America, national news organizations send reporters away for a few days, maybe a week, to move on to other news stories. There’s always another community, another tragedy.
However, in May 2022, after 19 elementary school students and two teachers were shot dead in Uvalde, Texas, ABC News begs to differ.
The journalists stayed in Uvalde for a whole year.
The result was a feature film with a deep nuance of what happens over time in a victimized community. The two-hour documentary “It Happened Here – A Year in Uvalde” aired on ABC on Friday and was shown on Hulu on Saturday.
“What we’ve discovered is deeply moving and inspiring, and we hope it will be helpful,” says Kim Godwin, president of ABC News.
The richness of the story is in the details: there are the children’s rooms that haven’t been touched since May 24, 2022, the brush that a father can’t get rid of because it still has the hair of a dead girl, who survived someone K. is startled by the sound of ice breaking, and the once carefree child who is now very stressed. We see a father who sits at his daughter’s grave every night to talk to her.
Then there are those who lived to tell the tale, but are now faced with survivor’s guilt every day. The mother is beating herself up for not letting her daughter come home with her after the morning award ceremony.
The idea for ABC was born out of a desire to bring something new to coverage of a news story that has achieved such a similarity between tragedy and tragedy that it numbs journalism: a numbing familiarity.
“I don’t think any community should be defined by one tragedy,” says Cindy Alley, executive producer of ABC’s Investigative Unit.
A core team of about a dozen people was assigned to the project, a significant commitment at a time when ABC News—like many other news organizations—were cutting staff. Team members, such as journalists John Quiñones, María Elena Salinas and Mireya Villarreal, were rotated. They came and went, depending on other tasks.
The project allowed reporters to meet community members and build trust by talking to them without cameras at all times, Galli explains.
“One of the aspects of being in a small community is that we’ll meet people at Starbucks or the grocery store,” he says. “They knew we were there and they knew we were there a long time.”
Kimberly Rubio, whose daughter Lexie died in the attack, said it was important for the families to deal with their grief. Rubio appeared in the early part of the documentary and talked about how, when she goes jogging, she reflects on what happened to her daughter.
Rubio said, “It also helped that they weren’t different reporters all the time.” “I had two that I worked with. It made it very easy for me to be vulnerable.”
The ABC team submitted more than 200 stories during their time at Uvalde, says Galli. His presence allowed him to break news stories, such as when Quinones got the first interview with a woman falsely accused of leaving the school door open, which the killer entered.
The question of why it took police more than an hour to enter the targeted classrooms kept Uvalde in the spotlight longer than most mass shootings. With footage of a trapped girl’s chilling 911 call in front of the gunman pleading for police action, ABC’s access deepened the documentary’s telling of the story.
“I only had a pencil,” recalled Arnie Reyes, a teacher injured that day and whose recovery ABC continues to cover. “It’s not an equal battle.”
The documentary talks about the tension in Uvalde between the affected parents and the school administrators and the people who support the police. That aspect of the story shows a hole in this ABC reporting, although it’s not necessarily their fault: The network was having trouble talking to law enforcement people and their supporters.
Lexie’s father, Felix Rubio, eventually quit his job as a police officer. He explained that he could not go back to work with the people who did not turn up at the school to try to save the children.
The documentary also tracks the growing activism of 10-year-old girls Kimberly Rubio and Caitlin Gonzales, which may prevent future school shootings.
“The important details, the nuances, get lost when we cover as a reporter and leave,” explains Quinones.
The extended assignment fit with the way Quinones prefers to report on such events. He doesn’t see the point of journalists trying to force people to speak when they don’t want to. There were times when he just had to walk away, like when a family he was talking to learned that their son could have survived if the police had acted more quickly.
The whole experience was an eye-opener for the series, says Galli. Following the Uvalde team’s example, the ABC digital team is now spending time in Buffalo, where a mass shooting killed 10 people in May 2022 as well.
Quinones, a Mexican-American who grew up in nearby San Antonio, said Uvalde’s extended assignment is the strongest story he has been involved in.
He added, “There is no question in my mind that this is a story that will live with me forever.”