Behind-the-scenes look at Eli Saslow’s reporting on a mass shooting survivor

When the attention surrounding the recent mass shooting at Umpqua Community College faded, The Washington Post’s Eli Saslow was still watching Roseburg, Oregon. In December, he published “A Survivor’s Life” after three reporting trips chronicling the recovery of 16-year-old Cheyeanne Fitzgerald, the youngest victim, and her relationship with her mother, Bonnie Schaan.

A few weeks ago, we wrote about the connection between Saslow’s story and Restorative Narrative. Wanting to find out more about the reporting behind Saslow’s story, we chatted with the Pulitzer Prize winner by phone about his reporting process and why he feels pulled to cover stories like Cheyeanne’s. Here is our edited Q&A.

When you pitched Cheyeanne’s story to your editors, was it a deliberate focus on your part to find this angle of recovery and resilience in a tragedy?

I don’t think I knew quite that it would be resilience or recovery. I just knew that what I wanted to do was stay some place for long enough to see what actually happened when one of these mass shootings faded from the headlines, when everybody left town and stopped paying attention.

There’s this drumbeat of recovery and resilience and then we leave. It’s easiest to look away, and then another one happens and the pattern repeats. It’s almost like we process these things in a few days. Obviously, for the people who are shot, there is no moving on. There’s nothing tidy about it.

Eli Saslow
(Photo by Marlon Correa/The Washington Post)

How was it that you drilled down to Cheyeanne’s story from all the mass shootings, or even from this specific mass shooting in Oregon?

In Oregon, I had covered that shooting. I had been one of those people in the first few days scrambling and paying a lot of attention. At The Washington Post we always run a page of stories on each victim who lost their life. As we should — that’s obviously the greatest toll. But in all of these mass shootings, there are also these survivors whose lives are hugely impacted. They get lost in it a little bit more quickly, even though there are thousands of them who have been shot and survived. For that reason, I knew I wanted to pay attention to a survivor.

Cheyeanne became compelling because as I learned about the nine survivors in Oregon, Cheyeanne’s injuries were pretty bad. She’s 16, she was just already at this point where she was beginning to figure everything out and she had just begun to get her life on track. That was a really interesting age to me. And then it was just a process of winning over her trust and her mother’s trust so that I could not just come and interview them, but be there for a series of days over a series of weeks.

What was that process like, of earning the trust of Cheyeanne and her mother?

I think it happens in big ways and small ways. The first thing that I try to do is just make people feel comfortable by making them realize that I’m there because I care and because I think what’s happening to them is important. It’s something that I want to write about with honesty and also with empathy.

We tell ourselves a lot of times that it’s the role of a journalist to be totally impartial. I think people confuse that sometimes with journalists needing to be almost unfeeling. If you’re going to write a long story about somebody and you want the reader to care, then you as a writer better also find a way to care.

I try to just leave my own life outside the house and come in and pay full attention. Then it’s also things like being willing to eat where they eat and making them comfortable in your presence and just being willing to go with the flow in all situations. But I think the biggest thing, honestly, is time. You have to invest time in stories like this because people don’t get comfortable usually in the first 20 minutes or in the first hour or sometimes in the first day or days. Trust is built over time.

You focused pretty thoroughly on not just her physical health, but also her mental health and her mother’s mental health as well. Is that aspect something that can be more of a challenge to capture and then relay to readers?

Cheyeanne is going to be OK, physically. It’s going to take a while, but she’s going to be OK. What I think feels much more tenuous to her, and to her family, is whether or not she’s going to be OK psychologically. It was clear to me early on with the psychological damage that it was every bit as real and potentially more lasting than the physical damage.

After spending a lot of time with Cheyeanne and seeing the flashes of anger, the frustration, the strains in her relationship with her mom, and the fear, it was pretty clear to me that that was going to be central to what the story was about.

One really compelling thread throughout your story is how Cheyeanne very much wanted to tell her story of the shooting, but had trouble finding people who would listen. At what point in the reporting process did she open up to you?

I saw pretty quickly that she was trying to tell people. She wanted to tell this thing, but everybody was trying to move on from it and nobody wanted to hear it. That felt really emblematic to me of the way the country responds. I saw that that was going to be a device that I could use in the story. The challenge was I didn’t want to be the one that she eventually told. That would put me in the story in an awkward way. It was going to be much more powerful if she told somebody else.

When she told her brother Raimey with me also in the room, I was really glad about that. Of course I would’ve asked if my reporting was wrapping up and it had come to that point, but I knew it would be much more powerful if this thing building inside her had eventually come out to somebody else in her life.

Something that strikes me not only about this story but about a lot of your work is how absent you are. It reads like you’re writing with a lot of humility. Has that always been your style and what do you think it lends to the stories you write?

It’s purposeful. One of the ways that journalism can be powerful is if readers walk away from the story thinking not about the writer or the way in which the story was written, but the thing the story was about, and the people the story was about.

What happens then is they walk away from the story and they feel like they’ve seen the things for themselves and they’ve drawn their own conclusions from it. Those conclusions are so much more powerful than me as a writer trying to tell somebody what to think or what to feel.

You’ve done quite a few of these immersive stories before. Is there anything you’ve encountered, any challenges in reporting Cheyeanne’s story, that you weren’t expecting or that you haven’t experienced before?

There’s always something new and challenging about every story. That is what makes me love doing this kind of work.

With Cheyeanne, it was the rawness of the relationship, under normal circumstances between a 16-year-old girl and her mother, compounded by sudden dependence. The fact that Cheyeanne really now is dependent on her mom and the anger that she went through, there were really ugly moments in that relationship. There was also an incredible amount of stick-to-itiveness and perseverance and really fierce love. Despite all this shouting and pulling at the relationship, when it came down to it and Cheyeanne was scared, what she was doing was calling out for her mom.

The big challenge of the story was in being truthful about the tension there, but also doing it in a way in which hopefully readers understood that yes, there was damage, yes, there was anger, but in a country where everybody is struggling to feel safe, what makes the two of them feel safe is each other.

When you’re entrenched in a story like Cheyeanne’s, where there’s so much tension and a lot of emotion and stress, what do you do to take care of yourself as a reporter?

It’s a question that troubles me a little bit at times. Of course, reporting in sensitive situations can be hard and it can take a toll. But of course, whatever toll it takes on me is so fractional compared to what’s experienced by the people I’m writing about, right?

If I’m doing my job well, I’m experiencing, and I’m allowing readers to experience, this tiny fractional piece of what they’re going through for a brief period of time. And then I move onto the next story and I come back to my happy life and my two little kids who haven’t been shot. This is their story. There is no next story for them. It feels in some ways almost unfair of me to talk about it being hard for me.

But at the same time, of course it can be hard. I have a great counterbalance in having little kids and happy things to come home to. That helps a tremendous amount.

The writing process helps. It takes what you’ve seen or experienced and witnessed and allows you to make something of it….I guess the other thing I try to do is just remind myself that this is why I want to do this kind of work. I want to be able to experience some of these moments so that I can bring them to other people.

That’s a great way of looking at it. With Cheyeanne, do you ever think about whether you’d consider going back and following her story and checking in later on?

I would. That’s true with almost every story. The hardest part of stories for me sometimes, and I also think the most important part, is endings. Endings in narrative journalism are always artificial. You’re choosing when to begin and end a story. The end of that story, with Cheyeanne feeling fear as a stranger walks through the door, her story continues to move on from that.

If I went back now, it would end differently. If I went back in three months, it would end differently. I sometimes think more than doing follow-up stories in these situations, you could devote a whole career to following one thing out…. I think it’s my personal responsibility but it’s also the responsibility of journalism as a whole to not just pay attention to the biggest and most dramatic moments.

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