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Embedded Producer Chris Benderev Shares His Thoughts On Capital Gazette Trial Underway

ANNAPOLIS, MD - JULY 02: The Capital newspaper's logo is stenciled onto a newspaper vending machine following last week's shooting at the community newspaper's office July 2, 2018 in Annapolis, Maryland.
ANNAPOLIS, MD - JULY 02: The Capital newspaper's logo is stenciled onto a newspaper vending machine following last week's shooting at the community newspaper's office July 2, 2018 in Annapolis, Maryland.

Chris Benderev is the producer for the podcast Embedded, a podcast that takes a story from the news and goes deeper. He worked on a series about the the mass killing at the Capital Gazette newsroom. As the trial is underway, we spoke to him about his work to make sure their story is never forgotten.

Gerald Fischman, John McNamara, Rebecca Smith, Rob Hiaasen and Wendi Winters.

What has changed since your last report?

Well, to my surprise, a lot. We published the podcast series in February and March when it seemed a Maryland philanthropist was going to "save" the Baltimore Sun and the Capital Gazette from being taken over by Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund that's become notorious for buying up local newspapers and initiating severe cuts.

But then in the spring the Maryland philanthropist's plan fell apart. And so the Capital did come under Alden's ownership. Buyouts were offered immediately and several of the key characters from the podcast took them and left the paper.

Also, just one day after the third anniversary of the mass shooting on June 28th, the shooter's trial began. (It had been delayed numerous times since early 2019.) He's entered an insanity plea and if his defense convinces the jury, it would mean he'd be sent to a maximum security psychiatric hospital with the possibility of eventual release rather than a Maryland prison for the rest of his life.

Have you kept in touch with the people you've interviewed- how are they?

I've tried, imperfectly, to keep up with them. They are doing well, considering the circumstances. But the combination of the plan for local ownership crumbling, a new round of buyouts, the third anniversary of the shooting and the shooter's trial all happening in the span of 1-2 months has been pretty exhausting for many of them.

You're a reporter who works in a newsroom just like the Capital Gazette. What did you do to protect yourself mentally and cope with covering something so painful?

I'm not sure I did everything that experts would recommend but I did speak about it often with my editors and people in my life outside of work. I knew it would be painful but that was also part of what drew me to the story. It was so affecting from the moment I heard about it, I couldn't stop thinking about it.

The part I didn't expect was that over two years as I did more and more interviews and reading about this tragedy I would sometimes realize that I was almost getting desensitized to it. I'd breeze through some fact or quote when I was telling a friend or family member about the story and they'd gasp. Or one of The Capital staff would tell me something especially upsetting and I'd sort of wake up to how numb I'd become. Which is probably a good metaphor for how we as a country have adapted to our high levels of gun violence. (And high profile mass shootings like this one are what already receive lots more media attention than suicides by guns, urban gun violence, shootings tied to intimate partner violence, etc.)

What were you expecting to come from the trial?

The shooter already pleaded guilty so this trial is to address his other plea of not criminally responsible by reason of insanity. In other words, his attorneys claim he suffered from mental disorders so severely that he could not appreciate the criminality of his actions nor conform his actions to the law. Everyone had predicted this trial to be a "battle of the experts" so I expected a lot of psychologists and psychiatrists on the stand. And they have.

But there's also been a lot about the crime itself: security camera footage, body cam footage from responding police, photographs from the crime scene, etc. Some of those included images of the people who were killed. This was all shown on the first day of trial to establish the facts of the crime and it was clearly jarring for everyone in the courtroom, including the widows and other victims' family members.

How do you think this trial will be for the survivors? How are the families of the survivors handling this trial?

The six people who survived the shooting in the office were all called as witnesses for the state. Which meant they had to meet ahead of time to prepare with the prosecutor and review evidence from the crime scene. And then last Friday (July 8) they took the stand in court and were asked to recount details like what they were thinking as they hid under their desks and what they heard and saw of the people who'd been shot and killed. About half of the survivors left the courthouse soon after giving their testimony. But some of them stayed in the courtroom and seemed interested to learn more.

As for the survivors' families, some of them have been here every day of the proceedings. Others haven't shown at all. I guess these are examples of how everyone copes differently.

Will you add to the series on Embedded?

We aren't 100% sure yet but we are strongly considering it.

Did you learn anything unexpected or that surprised you from your reporting?

I was surprised to find that apparently the FBI assisted local prosecutors by building an exact replica of the office in miniature. And I do mean an exact replica. The crime itself is not portrayed but everything is perfectly proportional down to the cubicles and the shattered glass entrance to the office. This replica was used in court to allow witnesses to point to where they had been during the crime. While I'd seen photos and blueprints, I had obviously never been to the old office where the shooting happened (they never worked out of it again) so it was new for me to learn precisely what it looked like and where precisely people were. I was also surprised that someone at the FBI has the job of basically building dioramas of crime scenes.

What compelled you to cover this story and produce a podcast on it?

In late June 2018, when the shooting at the Capital Gazette happened, it had been less than a year since the massacres in Parkland, Florida and Las Vegas. As a show, Embedded was interested in documenting what the aftermath of a mass shooting looks like for survivors. Plus, when you're reporting on a story that is still taking place, it's always easier to document things if you're a short distance away and can get there quickly if something important happens.

On some level it's my own biases that led me, a white journalist working in DC, to feel interested in a group of mostly white journalists in another east coast town down the road. That said, as soon as I started watching TV interviews the surviving journalists from the Capital Gazette had given and met some of them off-the-record, I could tell they were, by profession, good at putting their feelings into words, which is helpful for audio stories. Plus they were funny and kind yet a little bit jaded in the way a lot of journalists are.

And finally they had interesting challenges ahead of them. Unlike some mass shootings where the survivors don't ever see each other again, they all continued to work for this paper. What would that look like? The paper had also started covering the legal proceedings of the gunman – how would that work?

The survivors were worried they'd be forgotten, do you think it has happened?

I don't think they've been forgotten. In part because maybe "forgotten" is the wrong word. If you survive a high profile mass shooting you are far more likely to get covered in the national news, even though other types of gun violence are far more common.

But I do think the rest of the country moved on without changing much about its approach to guns, mental health, etc., like it does after every mass shootings. And when you've had your entire world turned upside down by a man with a grudge and a gun, it's tough to watch everyone else have the luxury of moving on.

Anything else you want to share about this trial?

Just that the Capital Gazette, which is now a paper with a significantly smaller staff than it had even three years ago and, frankly, an uncertain future under Alden's ownership, is still covering this trial every day with some of the most knowledgeable and conscientious reporters out there. They continue to uphold some sensitive stylistic choices that they admitted maybe they should have been doing more often for other stories of violent crime before they were the subjects of one. For instance, they never run the shooter's mugshot (he, like many mass shooters, clearly sought notoriety). They leave out certain details that seem gratuitous to their audience. And they've developed this house style where they always find a way to include the names of their five murdered colleagues first in any article before using the shooter's name.

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