In our newest Notable Narrative, which just this week won the American Society of News Editors prize for distinguished nondeadlinewriting, Arizona Republic reporter Shaun McKinnon tells the absorbing account of the January 2011 shooting of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and more than a dozen others outside a Safeway in Tucson.
“Tucson Tragedy” ran as a 11,332-word, four-chapter serial less than a month after the crime. Despite the relatively quick turnaround and the media saturation, McKinnon and a team of reporters gathered and prioritized a staggering amount of fresh, hard-to-get detail. It’s the rewrite person’s task to make sense of all the field reports and to transform raw information into story, and McKinnon –who usually covers water, climate change and the environment –handled the potentially unwieldy narrative, full of characters, chaos and the unlikely presence of a child, with streamlined clarity and grace.
The story fulfills the primary hallmarks of narrative. Structure: We meet the characters via the phone calls they received announcing the “Congress on Your Corner” meet-and-greet, and watch them move, scene by scene, toward the moment of disaster. We hear dialogue among witnesses, rescue workers, victims. Details provide vivid visuals and suggest lives beyond the crisis: the witness who happened to be at Safeway buying beef broth for a roast that she intended to put in a slow cooker; the judge with a “tsunami” of a caseload.
McKinnon chose the kind of details that help us see the shooting victims and heroes alike as ordinary people confronted with unthinkable circumstances. Even the congresswoman, just back from taking her oath of office in Washington, D.C., is shown being real (and therefore mortal) in the hours before the madness:
Now she was home, and she wanted to ride her bicycle.
The simplicity of the sentences echoes the unrelenting tension of the subject matter:
At the front of the line, the congresswoman moved on the ground. Near her, a young girl lay motionless.
With no one directing them, no one telling them what to do, the uninjured rose to their feet and began tending to the wounded. They strained to hear the sound of sirens. They needed help, a lot of help.
A moment worth noting: One of the victims, as everyone by now knows, was a 9-year-old girl who loved politics. McKinnon handled her story especially well (“Her heart wasn’t injured. But it wouldn’t beat.”), and precision reporting gave him the details to build an unforgettable scene around one of the child’s trauma surgeons.
Overall, the story embodies the idea that high-stakes, complex drama calls for carefully calibrated writing.
Coming Friday: a Q-and-A with the writer, Shaun McKinnon