Throwing Shade

How a fatal train wreck helped me see why journalism matters

Social media editor Justin Mitchell reported live from the scene of a train-charter bus crash using Facebook Live on Tuesday, March 7, 2017.
Social media editor Justin Mitchell reported live from the scene of a train-charter bus crash using Facebook Live on Tuesday, March 7, 2017.

It’s really hard being a journalist sometimes.

As a digital producer, it’s my job to make sure SunHerald.com looks great and shows the latest news our hardworking staff works to report and produce for immediate consumption. Gone is the time when people had days to work on a story — in 2017, consumers want the headlines and they wanted them five minutes ago.

The web team is responsible for posting those stories to the web, finding a home for them in their proper sections, editing them, writing headlines and getting the stories on Facebook and Twitter with appropriate art or video attachments.

Something else we’re responsible for is reading all of the comments and messages we get about each story.

Here are some the phrases we see every day: Fake news. Alternative facts. Liberal garbage. Go back to school. You need an editor. This headline sucks. Shame on you. This isn’t news.

A lot of times we just keep on scrolling. Sometimes it’s better to look the other way. But on certain days, it just really hits you that people really think about what you do in this way, and it hurts. I often wonder if people would post things like this if they’d spent a day being a reporter.

This was one of those weeks when I was frustrated.

But on Tuesday, crime reporter Robin Fitzgerald got a tip that there had been an accident on the tracks at Main Street in Biloxi and there may be casualties. We couldn’t report that because we had no confirmation, but it was enough for photographer John Fitzhugh and me to grab our gear and run out of the newsroom to Biloxi.

On the way there, I turned on the Sun Herald’s Snapchat and started a story — we didn’t know much, but I told folks we were on the way to what officials confirmed as a train accident involving a charter bus.

As soon as we got to the crash, I started shaking. I saw people crying on the ground. I saw firefighters pulling seniors off the bus. I saw the fear and concern in emergency officials’ eyes. Everyone who was important in the city of Biloxi was there. This was a big deal.

John and I split up. He got as close to the wreckage as he could to get photos, interview eyewitnesses and wait for survivors to walk away from the wreckage. My job was to go live on Facebook to show our readers what the scene looked like and get the latest updates from officials. Our reporters in the newsroom were using my information on social media to update our story in real time.

First, officials confirmed three were dead and several injured. Then, Biloxi city spokesman Vincent Creel called the first of two on-scene press conferences. After that, he asked if I would talk with an Austin, Texas, reporter on the phone while he went and got Biloxi Fire Chief Joe Boney so I could talk with him.

Officials let the media have access where we needed it and gave us the information we needed in record time. The community came out to watch first responders rescue people. They clapped and praised God when seven people walked away unharmed. They prayed for those who had died and for those who were taken away in rescue helicopters.

While I was on Facebook Live, many readers were asking questions I hadn’t thought of asking, so I got the information for them as soon as I could. The second we started seeing “good reporting” on the comments feed, I realized this is why journalists do what we do.

It’s not for the people who post those negative things on our Facebook page.

We report news for the people who need to know what’s going on in their community. We report news for South Mississippians.

And that’s more important than any comment on Facebook.

Justin Mitchell: 228-604-0705, @JustinMitchell_

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