COLUMN: How Central Michigan Life covered the March 2 shooting
I couldn't have said it any better than my former Editor-in-Chief Jordyn Hermani.
"There was never any moment where I thought I couldn't count on anybody," said Hermani, who is currently a technology/cyber security intern reporter at Politico in Washington D.C. "There was never any point where I feel like we were unprepared."
The March 2 shooting in Campbell Hall was the biggest story to hit this university since I started as a freshman in 2016. The trust that was instilled in my coworkers during and after the coverage of the March 2 shooting was notable and hard-earned.
James Eric Davis Jr. shot and killed his parents, Diva and James Davis Sr., at about 8:30 a.m. March 2, 2018 in Campbell Hall. He was charged with open murder and felony firearm charges. In January, Davis Jr. pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity after being deemed criminally insane by an Isabella County Trial Court judge.
CM Life's coverage began minutes after the Central Alert phone call.
“The CMU Police Department is responding to a report of shots fired near the fourth floor area of Campbell Hall, again, shots fired near the fourth floor area of Campbell Hall. Please stay clear of the area.”
I, along with other CM Life staffers, couldn't even process the message at first. Was I hallucinating? Was there really a shooting at CMU? I jumped out of bed in Fabiano Hall and my roommate was already putting things in front of the door to create a barricade. I realize now that it was a bit dramatic, but we have never been in a situation like that.
Hermani immediately called Director of Student Media, Dave Clark, who is CM Life's adviser. What he thought would have been a quiet day off turned into one of the longest days he's ever spent in our newsroom. Hermani began calling in information to Clark who assisted her in alerting our audience on social media.
Hermani threw on the first clothes that she could find and left her apartment right away. She told her roommates to stay inside — there could be an active shooter on the loose. On the way to campus, Hermani called photographers Mackenzie Brockman and Cody Scanlan. Both were already en route.
Since the police were blocking off parking lots on campus, Hermani was forced to park in the Dragon Express parking lot. She remembered walking past her car multiple times throughout the day to make sure it wasn't towed.
I tried to head to the office about an hour after I got the first Central Alert. Despite me being the sports editor, it was all hands on deck in the CM Life office. When I tried to leave through the Fabiano lobby, I was stopped by two police officers. They instructed me to go back to my dorm room.
While I conspired an escape plan, Hermani and then-Assistant Community Editor Mitchell Kukulka were on the scene at Campbell Hall. Hermani specifically remembered talking with her father on the phone about being in the hall where the shooting just happened. The first thing she told him was that she was safe and covering the incident.
After not finding much information from police who had secured the crime scene, Hermani and Kukulka, who is now a reporter for the Midland Daily News, walked away past the Campbell Hall entrance. While Hermani was walking, a resident assistant insisted that she got inside so she could be safe.
Our fearless leader didn't stay there long, however. Hermani realized there wasn't an immediate danger and walked out of the building's front doors to reconvene with the rest of the team in the office in Moore Hall.
Clark said his biggest concern was with the reporters out in the field during a possible active shooter situation. He told us to cover the story, but don't take any chances with our safety.
I remembered my mom's reaction after I told her that Hermani was in the Campbell Hall. Before writing this column, I asked her what she remembered about when I told her that CM Life was out working this story.
"I thought you were all crazy," Donna Goetz said. "I would have been in my room with the door locked doing what the police told me to do."
Hermani and Clark met and started putting together a plan of action. Who was going to do what, how are we going to cover this event and who will be responsible for each duty was all talked about during this meeting.
While Hermani and Clark began planning, Kukulka and staff photographer Mackenzie Brockman were following SWAT teams around campus while they searched for the shooting suspect. They used Facebook Live to update readers about the 15-hour manhunt. Every couple hours, reporters would switch off and run back to the office just to charge their phones.
"Honestly, I've never felt safer," Photo Editor Cody Scanlan said. "There was a police officer on every block."
Hunter McLaren, a staff reporter, lived on the fourth floor of Campbell Hall just a few rooms down from Davis Jr.'s dorm room.
Mike Nichols, CM Life's editorial coach that semester, remembered McLaren telling him that he lived in Campbell Hall from a training session earlier in the semester. He called McLaren to check on his safety, ask his whereabouts and, after learning that he was still in his dorm room, stay put.
Nichols told McLaren to contact Hermani to find out what he knew just minutes after their phone call.
By this point, most CM Life staffers who were still in Mount Pleasant before spring break were working their stories. Even then-Community Editor Emma Dale was calling sources and gathering quotes from her home in Grand Haven.
University Editor Evan Sasiela, who is now a reporter at the Ionia Sentinel-Standard, and Ashley Schafer, who is now a reporter at the Midland Daily News, were contacting sources and attending press conferences.
Videographers Richard Tran and Josh Barnhart were driving through the community collecting video clips. McLaren was calling in information from his dorm whenever they would get an update. Reporter Emilly Davis was putting together a story about student reactions. Advertising representatives were collecting information from social media. Nichols was coordinating with reporters and CM Life leadership. Clark was delegating responsibility to staffers via Hermani and Sasiela as they arrived throughout the day.
Photographers Scanlan and Brockman documented all of the happenings. Reporters Evan Petzold and Andrew McDonald coordinated with the Athletics Department to report on rescheduled events and comments from former athletes. I went to the Comfort Inn off campus where they were sending worrying parents who were trying to pick up their children for spring break.
At the first press conference that day, the entire first row was filled with CM Life reporters, photographers and editors ready to find out more information about the shooting suspect, incident and search.
Hermani was proud of the newsroom for the accuracy of its reporting, she said. In instances like the shooting, accuracy is more important than speed.
For example, a broadcast news station in Chicago reported that the parents were the ones that were killed first. However, other reports were circling social media that said more than two people died, students were injured and some even ran the map of Carnegie Mellon University, the other "CMU" near Pittsburgh.
In an effort to find information, many publications from the New York Times to local high school papers rang the CM Life newsroom.
Hermani specifically remembers having Clark sit her down in his office after the press conference. She was thankful that someone had the patience to calm her down and simply ask if she had eaten anything that day.
"It was nice to have somebody that was just like keeping me in check," Hermani said. "It was my job to check on all of you to make sure that you were all OK, but it was nice to have him (check on me)."
The long day was coming to an end — stories were being filed, the last Facebook Live update from Hermani just finished and updates slowed.
At about 9 p.m., two state police officers came into the CM Life office while they finished up checks in every CMU building. They said it was okay to leave if needed. They also told us it was OK to stay. Clark used this opportunity to ask the staff if it was time to go.
We were afraid to leave the office before something happened. Hermani didn't want to hear that police had found the shooting suspect on her way home to her apartment, so the staff was weary about leaving.
Clark and Hermani decided that "whatever was going to happen, was going to happen." They shouldn't wait around in the office after a long day. Hermani and Sasiela, the two most veteran CM Lifers in the room, decided to sleep in shifts. For two hours, Hermani would sleep and Sasiela would stay up waiting for an update. They went on and off for another hour until Davis Jr. was found after midnight.
Sasiela was relieved to go to sleep, but was right back at it in the morning for an 8 a.m. press conference.
While preparing follow-up coverage for the shooting one year later, I felt that our reporting for this story had come full-circle. Russell Davis, Davis Jr.'s older brother, agreed to a phone interview after I introduced myself at Davis Jr.'s court hearing. I ended up interviewing one of the strongest people I have ever talked to.
Russell told me about how much he loved his brother. He detailed the phone call when he forgave his brother. He explained that his family is a loving one — a faithful one. Davis Jr. is getting help, and he has the full support of his family. One of the most important takeaways from this interview was that, despite the circumstances, the Davis family will live on and prosper.
This interview brought the entire incident full-circle. At the time of the incident, I couldn't help but be concerned about the rest of the Davis family members. Now, I know the family is in the healing process. It is inspirational.