Tony Plohetski is a national award-winning investigative journalist, writer and broadcaster whose work spans print, television and digital mediums. In his more than two decades of reporting in Austin, he has chronicled the region’s biggest stories, and his investigative and accountability reporting has led to indictments and prompted new state laws and other government reform. In 2022, Plohetski won August’s Sidney Award for his coverage of exclusive video depicting the police’s response to the May 24 Uvalde Robb Elementary School shooting that left 19 students and two teachers dead. Plohetski and his Austin American-Statesman teammates are one of two finalists for the Pulitzer Prize Gold Medal in Meritorious Public Service, the nation’s most prestigious journalism honor, for their reporting on the Uvalde mass shooting. The honor marks the first time in the Austin American-Statesman’s 152-year history that it has been a Pulitzer finalist for news reporting. (Editorial cartoonist Ben Sargent won the Pulitzer in 1982 and was a finalist in 2001 and 2002 while at the Statesman.)
What was your process for gathering information about the Uvalde School Shooting on May 24, 2022, and how did you obtain the hallway footage from the police officer’s body cam?
I learned in the first couple weeks after the shooting that there was in fact video that depicted the law enforcement breakdown, and so about three weeks after the shooting, one source who had access to the video allowed me to view it. I was able to convince that source to allow me to at least take a screen grab of it. So that became the first image nationally from inside the school and was a real turning point in the case because people were able to see with their own eyes Police Officers standing around at 19 minutes into this whole ordeal with assault rifles and ballistic shields. But getting that first photograph out into the public really also compelled me to actually try to get the video because I knew the public importance of it, and I knew that the public deserved to see the family members of the victims deserved to see it. Several weeks after that, a source ultimately gave me the video.
Were there any challenges or obstacles that you encountered while trying to obtain the footage, and how did you overcome them?
I think every journalist in America who was covering the shooting was trying to get the footage. Unfortunately, only a few people had it, so it wasn’t as though it was widely available. But I do think I drew upon my many years of reporting here in Texas and the connections that I have to get it. But it was very difficult. I think we also had to balance protecting our sources as well; the District Attorney in Uvalde was threatening that she might try to go after someone who was disclosing information from the investigative file, that was a concern as well. Frankly, once we got it, we faced an array of editorial and ethical decisions we had to make on how to present this information to the public
How did you balance the need to report on the Uvalde School Shooting story with the responsibility to be respectful and sensitive to the victims and their families?
We carried them in the front of our mind as we went through our reporting process. Unfortunately,at that phase of the story, a lot of the family members had not developed the advocacy or activism voices that we know now that they have. At that point, many of them were still shunning the media; they were not necessarily open to talking to many reporters, so reaching them was difficult. We relied on colleagues who had contact with them to try to reach out to them as best we could. But we also knew that the likelihood of reaching all 21 families would not be able to be done in a timely way. But, certainly, we made efforts; at the same time, we possessed information that was very much in public demand. The governor of the state was saying the video needed to be released, there were marches in the community of Uvalde calling for transparency, and so we didn’t feel like, as journalists that we could really sit on the information indefinitely. So that was a big piece of what we had to navigate, but also, in addition to that, there were things about the video itself that we were trying to work through. For example, as journalists, we certainly don’t want to do anything that would glorify a school shooter, but at the same time, we did ultimately show the shooter entering the school because how he entered had been the source of conflicting information. We also really had to weigh if we were going to show and air the sound of the gunfire; ultimately, we did. You could also hear faint screaming in the video; ultimately, we decided that was too much and too gruesome to air, so we did not in that case.
What impact do you think your reporting on the Uvalde School Shooting had on the local community and beyond, and how do you measure that impact?
I think in the immediate aftermath, some of the families hailed our work as heroic and necessary. Others, though, were extremely angry with us and felt as though they had been traumatized all over again by the contents of the video. So that was a part of it, but more broadly, I do think that the work really dismantled a false narrative of law enforcement heroism. I mean, keep in mind that in the hours after the shooting, authorities were saying that, but for the quick action of law enforcement this could have been much worse. The video not only dismantled that but also brought truth and some accountability to what happened that day. I think this is still evolving but hopefully, better preparation among law enforcement for something like that.
What lessons did you learn from covering the Uvalde School Shooting, and how will you apply them to your future reporting on similar events?
I tell people to always get the video. When I was coming up as a young journalist, it was always get the documents and trust me I still think getting the documents are important. But, as technology has changed and there are cameras everywhere, we now see that there is video everywhere. I think getting the video should always be a foremost priority. I mean, this is an old journalism lesson but one that I think we are reminded of, and this is always question what you’re being told. Challenge authority, and don’t be afraid to challenge the official narrative because in this case, it was just very wrong.