An open letter from Iowa journalists covering a school shooting

The Iowa Starting Line team

By Team Starting Line

January 11, 2024

A single gunman opened fire in the cafeteria of Perry High School in Iowa, on Thursday, Jan. 4, killing one sixth-grader and wounding seven others before taking his own life.

The Iowa Starting Line staff covered this tragedy and here are our reflections on what that experience was like and how it has affected them.

Ty Rushing, chief political correspondent:

I covered my first mass shooting in October 2017. Multiple people from my publication’s coverage area were in Las Vegas during an act of domestic terrorism committed by Stephen Paddock, who murdered 60 people, including Carly Kreibaum of Sutherland, Iowa.

Although I remain proud of the stories I wrote in the wake of that shooting, covering it was one of the worst experiences of my career. I had one woman reliving surviving the shooting and telling me about slipping on blood as she fled and for the other story, I was cold calling loved ones to ask about their relative who unexpectedly died days earlier.

That same sense of dread arose last Thursday when I received a call from my editor, Pat Rynard, telling me to get Perry because there was a school shooting.

I initially froze when Pat asked me and staff writer Nikoel Hytrek, who was on the three-way call, what was the plan. Hearing about a school shooting is always jarring and learning it was 40 miles from your home a little before 9 a.m. amplifies that feeling.

We quickly devised a plan and I started charging my devices and changing into warmer clothes because I knew we would be out there for a while. I also made sure to bring a sharpened pencil, a tip I learned the first time I covered a cold-weather candlelight vigil and the ink in my pens froze.

I arrived at a media staging area in Perry a little before 10 a.m. and chatted with some fellow Iowa journalists about how messed up what happened was while a few national reporters recorded stand-ups.

After the first of two press conferences on the day, I hit the pavement looking for Perry residents to talk to. I ended up speaking to several students who escaped the school, a gas station manager who helped shelter students, and two kids who were friends with the shooter and shaken to the core by what their friend had done

I didn’t leave Perry until close to 5 p.m. as Nikoel was coming to relieve me and cover that evening’s candlelight vigil. I remember telling her to bring a pencil.

The next day I covered one of two rallies for former President Donald Trump (the Iowa caucus doesn’t pause in the wake of tragedy). Trump only mentioned Perry during his first rally in Sioux Center. He called it a horrible tragedy, but then said “we have to get over it, we have to move forward.”

The tragedy in Perry—just like the Las Vegas shooting—is something I will never get over.

Amie Rivers, community editor:

A school shooting in Iowa is never something you want to wake up to.

When my editor Pat called me early on January 4, I knew it couldn’t be good.

But I also knew, with the small but mighty Iowa Starting Line team we had, that we would have it covered from all angles for our audience.

As Pat, Ty, and Nikoel reported from the scene, Avery and I gathered breaking news as it arose online, sifting through the gossip and the rightwing noise to get to the truth of what was happening and what people could do to help.

Everything that day unrelated to Perry was put on the back burner while we pushed out breaking news update after breaking news update, on all the platforms. It was also the first time I compiled everything into a single-subject breaking news email for our 17,000+ newsletter subscribers.

As the story unfolded in the coming days, we continued to report on what was true. Unlike other outlets, we also reported on what was false and had been spreading around like wildfire on social media. And we spotlighted students who demanded Iowa Republicans respond to the horrors of gun violence—something those students will now think about every day.

I am extremely proud to be a part of our newsroom on tough days like this, providing a vital, unmatched service to our communities and to Iowa.

Nikoel Hytrek, staff writer:

I was getting ready for a meeting when Pat called me and asked if I’d seen the news. I didn’t know what he was talking about, and every other thought disappeared when he told me.

When things like this happen, journalists aren’t different from anyone else in wanting to know everything immediately. My main thought was: “what do people need to know right now?”

And I knew my coworkers were asking the same question.

I reached out to hospitals and checked social media to see what people were saying and whether students were sharing videos or their thoughts.

That was where I saw the beginnings of people latching onto the shooter’s alleged identity and spreading the lie that it was responsible for the shooting (as has happened in so many other shootings to downplay the real problem.) Amie wrote a story about it the next day.

At the vigil in Perry, a lot of the urgency faded. I documented the grief and the sense of togetherness as faith leaders, community members, parents, and students talked about their experiences and supported each other in the days to come when news would be slower but the impacts would last.

I’m proud of the work we all did to keep people informed, and the perspectives we caught and shared to remind people how these crises affect those who are impacted. I barely thought about the caucuses or legislature, except when people mentioned what actions had to come next.

Avery Staker, social media manager

I haven’t been in the workforce long, having just graduated from college in May 2023. I have already learned so much from working at Iowa Starting Line, but nothing could have prepared me for that day.

I was still getting ready for my day when Pat called. I had seen an update from another outlet, so when he asked if I’d seen the news, I knew the tension in my chest was for good reason. I have only been out of school for a few months, so for years I have felt school gun violence closing in on me. It kept inching closer and closer; in the fall, my alma mater received an anonymous threat during Homecoming Week and I didn’t breathe easily until hours later when they determined it was an empty one. I had family in that school, both learning and teaching. My community is small, close-knit, filled with big families and deep connections, so the impact of a threat like that was devastating, even if it had been empty.

All of those emotions came rushing back because I knew how close we had to be to what happened in Perry—the fear, the anger, and the sorrow that resulted from the knowledge that these things can be prevented. Quickly though, I remembered I had a job to do. My emotions were still there, but I knew I had to channel them into something more meaningful. It was the first time I was able to place all of that weight somewhere else, that I had the means and the opportunity to make an impact with what I felt and knew.

I found purpose instead of fear, anger, and sorrow in the injustices of that day and in the knowledge that we can prevent these things from happening. I found a drive to make things better, to hold those responsible accountable, and to seek out the communities that need it the most.

Politics is a big and scary world for a rookie journalist like me. But, conquering that world with my skills has become all the more important, because it is where I can make meaningful, necessary change. So instead of wallowing, I took a breath, sat down at my desk, and got to work.

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