Alumni | Columbia Journalism School

The Emotional Toll of Covering Violence in America

Featured in the J-School October alumni newsletter

As People Magazine’s crime and breaking news reporter, Elaine Aradillas '04 has covered mass shootings in America over the last few years, telling tale after tale of countless victims whose lives were upended in a few short minutes of violence. She has worked at People for almost 12 years, first in Los Angeles, and for the last five based in New York City. She also worked as a reporter at the Orlando Sentinel, the San Antonio Express-News, the Austin American Statesman, and she was an intern for The New York Times. To read our interview with her, click on the orange arrow below:

Q. You covered the El Paso shooting, in your home state of Texas, but that wasn’t your first mass shooting, obviously.

Dayton and El Paso, those were numbers 13 and 14. My first one was Aurora, the Dark Knight shooting. (On July 20, 2012, a mass shooting took place inside a Century 16 movie theater in Aurora, Colorado.) I was living in LA when that happened, and I got a call at 4 in the morning from New York telling me to get on the next plane to Denver. By the time I got there all these people still hadn’t left, they hadn’t gone to bed. I talked to this one girl who sticks out in my mind. She was in shock. I said, “Have you even slept?'' And she says, "No, because every time I close my eyes I see him.” She was just a teen.

Q. What does covering so many mass shootings do to you as a reporter?

Secondary trauma is real and I feel like the shootings — my philosophy has always sort of been, this isn’t happening to me so I can deal with whatever these people are sharing with me, right? But by number 14, I have discovered that the shootings are getting harder to cover emotionally . . . These people had no idea they were going to die today and they were doing the most mundane things, whether shopping at a Walmart or going to a music festival or going to school, going to a midnight movie -- and I think that really messes with me emotionally.

Q. You’ve worked at various news organizations all over the country. How important is it for a journalist to move around, know different parts of the country and work for different news outlets? Does that inform your reporting?

I worked at the San Antonio Express-News. I worked at the Orlando Sentinel. I lived in LA. I lived in Austin. Now when big stories happen, I really feel like I’m able to tell them (the editors) the way the rest of the country is thinking. I think the work that you can do at a local newspaper is invaluable. I just think it makes you a better reporter. In terms of what I do now, my career has been very helpful to me in dealing with all kinds of people from all different places. And I do I feel like a sort of chameleon. I can become whatever I need to be at that moment because I’ve also had so many experiences and talked to so many different people.

Q. What did you learn from the J-School that helped prepare you for your beat?

I had already been a reporter for a few years at my hometown paper in San Antonio before attending Columbia. I came to the program already knowing how to ask: who, what, when, where and why, and then quickly writing a news story from the information I collected. But what I really learned from Columbia was to ask: how. There were a handful of professors who taught me new ways to think about my stories. I am a Mexican-American woman who grew up in South Texas. When I moved to New York and attended Columbia, it was a life-changing experience that widened my worldview. At school, my beat was Morrisania in the Bronx. It was tough but rewarding. Everything I learned on the beat, I carry with me while visiting new places and meeting new people for my job. -- Maria Newman ’80

Alumni Awards


Nominations are now closed for the 2020 Alumni Awards

The Columbia Journalism School Alumni Awards are presented every year to distinguished graduates who exemplify the best of the Journalism School's high standards of journalism. The 2019 winners were: Elisabeth Bumiller ’79,  Ailsa Chang ’08,  Martin S. Gottlieb ’69, and the winner of the First Decade Award, Mariana Atencio ’09. We will be announcing the 2020 winners before the end of the year. Stay tuned! 

For more information on the 2019 winners, see our press release here

To see the complete list of past winners please click HERE.

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