Denver shooting turns journalists on the job into witnesses for the police

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Image via Giuseppe Cirasino on Flickr

The dramatic transformation from journalists on the job into witnesses for the police in a broad-daylight fatal shooting at a downtown Denver protest took only moments.

But that’s what happened last weekend when employees for two local news outlets with the largest online audiences in Colorado found themselves at the center of a deadly news story.

The harrowing scene unfolded Oct. 10 outside Denver’s Art Museum as people clashed during a political rally that left a 49-year-old hat-maker and “Patriot Muster” attendee named Lee Keltner dead. In jail and facing a murder charge is 30-year-old Matthew Dolloff, a private security guard hired by KUSA 9News to protect one of the station’s journalists at the rally. A Denver Post photographer nearby captured astonishing images of the shooting, and a producer for 9News, who Dolloff was accompanying, caught part of the incident on cellphone video. Both journalists wound up in police questioning.

In the week that followed, the story turned into a kind of bad trip media nightmare for our 2020 End Times. Errors in initial reporting by The Denver Post wound up weaponized for ideological gain. A TV station clumsily published an un-redacted arrest affidavit that included names of witnesses, and conservative activists spread it. Because it was “out there,” an alternative weekly re-published those names. Vitriol bubbled from dark corners of the internet and splashed onto the media figures involved in the story. Both seem like they’re laying low, their social media accounts disabled or inactive.

Amid the chaos, some remarkable photojournalism emerged, spotlighting just how indispensable professional photographers are for a newspaper during major events.

And questions linger a week later as more details come to light about the use of private security by local media, the background of the man who pulled the trigger while working alongside the local news, what exactly happened in those fatal moments, and how these developments will inform newsrooms in the future.

The astonishing images

By now, you have likely seen the remarkable shot that longtime Denver Post photographer Helen H. Richardson captured of the moment a bullet shell casing ejected from Dolloff’s handgun amidst a cloud of orange Mace-type spray from Keltner.

Richardson also captured a haunting moment shortly after when Dolloff turns and meets her lens with a startled stare, gun in hand. “I thought ‘Is he just going to start spraying the crowd'” Richardson wrote in a first-person Instagram post about her experience that is no longer public. As The New York Times reported from an interview with Richardson days after the shooting, her photo didn’t make the front page of The Denver Post the following day: “After capturing the shooting frame by frame, she spent three hours at police headquarters being questioned as a witness.”

More from the Times piece:

Ms. Richardson said that the events unfolded in seconds and that Mr. Dolloff had come from behind her. Instinctively, she kept capturing the episode, “knowing to calm down, to focus, to keep shooting,” she said.

After slapping Mr. Dolloff, Mr. Keltner sprayed a Mace-like substance at him, “it seemed like simultaneously,” Ms. Richardson said, as Mr. Dolloff pulled out a firearm and opened fire. “There was never a thought, Am I going to run?” she said. “I didn’t have enough time to, really.” Two seconds after Mr. Keltner struck Mr. Dolloff, Mr. Keltner was shot and splayed on the pavement.

Two days after the shooting, The Denver Post published online 71 images from Richardson’s camera in chronological order along with timestamps and metadata. A six-second gap in the stream of shots, however, doesn’t catch what drew Keltner’s attention to the shooter.

An unnamed producer; an un-redacted report

The 9News producer also spent time in police questioning but was released. As I write this, the station hasn’t publicly identified the producer, though it showed photos of him, broadcast his voice, and interviewed someone speaking as his attorney.

9News General Manager Mark Cornetta declined to say why the station hasn’t named the producer. (Given some chatter in parts of the Internet that are prone to malice it’s perhaps not much of a surprise that the producer is keeping a low profile.)

Mainstream Colorado news outlets hadn’t published the producer’s name in the few days following the shooting even though some of them know who he is. Denver TV station KDVR briefly published an un-redacted arrest affidavit for Dolloff that named the producer and a few other witnesses along with their dates of birth. The station pulled the document offline and replaced it with a redacted version, but not before it spread among conservative commentators in various media. Once it was “out there,” Denver’s alternative weekly Westword re-published the document, reporting “an unexpurgated version … managed to slip out.”

Newsrooms in the digital age are re-thinking their responsibility in publishing names or photos of newsmakers simply because they appear in public documents. (Westword recently published names and photos of people arrested during Denver protests — and then unpublished them after taking heat.) Westword Editor Patty Calhoun says the paper discussed publishing the un-redacted arrest affidavit before doing so. “The producer’s name was certainly out there in other places,” she said, noting a particular conservative talk radio station in Denver.

One Denver TV news manager who doesn’t work for 9News told me his outlet hadn’t named the producer in the days after the shooting because his station was treating him like other witnesses they wouldn’t name unless they wished to come forward.

Five days after the shooting, mainstream print and digital outlets, too, had not named the producer.

“We’re supposed to be telling the truth without causing harm,” editor Dana Coffield, who is handling shooting coverage at The Colorado Sun, said Wednesday. “And the way that this story unfolded unfortunately has put us in a position of thinking about it differently.” She said her outlet would be having similar conversations even if the witness wasn’t working for a news station. “I don’t feel more protective of the producer at 9News than I do of Helen Richardson, whose byline is on all of those photos, but I also am not sure that there’s any public good to naming him,” Coffield said.

She added she might have a different feeling as the story continues to unfold.

The outside reporters

Because a 9News journalist and someone the station hired to protect him are such a central part of the story, the Denver NBC affiliate that goes by the call letters KUSA brought in a reporter from one of its sister stations in Texas to help handle coverage. This editor’s note appeared on top of an Oct. 11 story:
9NEWS is used to covering many different kinds of stories, but usually we’re not directly involved in them. For this reason, Jason Whitely from our sister station WFAA in DALLAS is covering the initial stages of the shooting and investigation.

On Thursday evening, this headline popped on the KUSA site: “Investigation: 9NEWS has used multiple unlicensed security guards.” A similar disclaimer appeared above the story, saying “A.J. Lagoe from our sister station KARE in Minneapolis” had done the reporting. From the story:

This investigation identified four other guards, in addition to Dolloff, who provided security to 9NEWS crews since June of this year that had no license at all.

9NEWS management “refused to confirm” which security company some guards it hired were contracted through, Lagoe reported. He also reported the station told him this: “9NEWS no longer uses Pinkerton to provide security.”

Just because the station is using outside reporters to handle uncomfortable coverage doesn’t mean 9News journalists aren’t reporting and commenting on the story in public. Local anchors are leading into the on-air reporting and posting updates on their social media accounts. 9News management declined to discuss the extent to which 9News journalists are able to publicly report or comment on the story, and how long an outside reporter will lead coverage.

Missing footage released

On Tuesday, three days after the killing, Whitley walked viewers through some brief video 9News released that was filmed on an iPhone by their still-unnamed producer.

That clip provided context missing from the six-second gap from Richardson’s shutter spray. The footage appears to show Keltner approaching Dolloff and the 9News producer. As he does, he or someone close by says, “Cameras out … this is not the place for a camera. Get the cameras out of here or I’m going to fuck you up.” Dolloff appears to be standing between Keltner and the producer. That’s when the video cuts out.

“The producer’s clip did not capture the shooting,” Whitley said in a 9News broadcast reporting on the footage. Whitley adds the producer began filming 12 seconds later as police swarmed the scene. “I’m press,” the producer yells multiple times, and “That guy was going to get me.” In the background, Dolloff is yelling “Security for 9News!” to officers. “He maced him so that’s when he shot him,” the producer tells police in the clip in the moments before Whitley says they confiscated his phone.

A lawyer speaking on behalf of the producer told 9News the producer “never knew” Dolloff had a gun until he saw him draw it. A 9News anchor said on air that the station gave the video to multiple other media outlets — as well as to the police.

“I think it’s important to recognize that this is somebody who is at the protest working to protect First Amendment rights,” Dolloff’s family attorney, Doug Richards, told The Denver Post Monday before the 9News producer’s footage came out publicly. “He was not there on behalf of any organization or to advance any political agenda. You can see in the images that he put his body in between the protester and the reporter.” The same attorney told 9News that Dolloff was “acting in self-defense” and “put his life and now his liberty between the now-deceased and the 9News employee.”

On Thursday, 9News published an interview with one a man named Jeremiah Elliot who was involved in an altercation with Keltner in the moments before the shooting. Asked if he knew the journalist from 9News “or any journalist from 9News,” Elliot replied, “I have not ever associated myself in any way with the 9News broadcasting company, no.” Asked if he talked to anyone from 9News out there that day, Elliot says, “I don’t want to talk too much about what occurred earlier in that day just in terms of what I was doing earlier in that day.”

In the clip, the reporter says he asked those questions because “people are saying that … 9News and you are connected.” He goes on, “Let me ask it like this: Do you have any connection with 9News or did you that day? Or Matthew Dolloff?” Elliot replies: “I have no connection to Matthew Dollof, I’d never met him before.”

Also on Thursday, Denver District Attorney Beth McCann said her office planned to file a second-degree murder charge against Dolloff. Keltner’s family on Friday called it a “positive first step.”

From The Denver Post:

“The Keltner family obviously wants justice for Lee,” family attorney William Boyle said in a statement on behalf of Keltner’s wife. The family still has questions relating to Matthew Dolloff’s relationship with 9News and the Pinkerton and Isborn security firms, the statement says. “We have reached out to these companies seeking answers. Although we have not been contacted, all three have issued carefully-crafted statements in what appear to be efforts to distance themselves from the shooting and Mr. Dolloff,” the statement reads.

“Lee’s family is in shock and mourning the loss of a father, grandfather, son, brother and husband,” the Post reported the family’s statement saying. “They hope that Lee is remembered as a proud Coloradan, a veteran and an artist. They appreciate respect for their privacy during this time of loss.”

Local journalists and private security 

Before last Saturday, plenty of viewers — and Colorado journalists — didn’t know news outlets were hiring private security to accompany their employees in the field. Foreign correspondents bringing bodyguards along on dangerous assignments, sure. But local protests?

Station management at 9News put out these statements following the shooting:

“For the past few months, it has been the practice of 9NEWS to contract private security, through an outside firm, to accompany our personnel covering protests. Pinkerton, the private security firm, is responsible for ensuring its guards or those it contracts with are appropriately licensed.” …

“9NEWS does not contract directly with individual security personnel. 9NEWS contracted with Pinkerton and had directed that security guards accompanying our personnel not be armed. None of 9NEWS’ crew accompanied by Mr. Dolloff on Saturday were aware that he was armed.”

Pinkerton is a national private security company whose namesake has a checkered history. The company put out its own statement, saying Dolloff wasn’t an employee and describing him as a “contractor agent from a long-standing industry vendor” that it did not name. On Wednesday, The Associated Press reported:

Matt Isborn, the owner of Isborn Security Services, said Wednesday that his company had hired Dolloff to work for KUSA-TV. He said the information released so far shows that Dolloff’s actions were “strictly defensive in nature” and his quick reaction may have saved the producer’s life.

Denver officials have said Dolloff did not have a license to work as a security guard in the city. Companies that employ unlicensed guards can have their company licenses suspended or revoked or be ordered to pay fines. The city attorney’s office said Dolloff, Pinkerton and KUSA-TV could also face civil or criminal action.

Writing for the journalism-education Poynter Institute, broadcast news guru Al Tompkins reported this week how journalists from national networks and local stations told him it has become “common practice to send security officers with news crews, and that it is not at all uncommon in some TV markets for those guards to be armed.”

Here in Colorado, we learned 9News wasn’t the only TV station to hire guards. From The Denver Post:

Dolloff had worked for more than a year as a private security guard at a number of events in Colorado, [Dolloff family attorney Doug] Richards said. The night before the shooting, Dolloff worked as an armed security guard at a debate between Colorado’s U.S. Senate candidates, Richards said. That debate was held at Denver7’s television studio and co-hosted by The Denver Post and Colorado Public Radio. Denver7 on Monday confirmed Dolloff was one of the guards at the debate but disputed that he was armed. “We do not use armed guards,” Holly Gauntt, Denver7’s news director, said in an email. “We have always told Pinkerton that we want unarmed guards.”

Gauntt told me via email that her station “specifically asked that guards not be armed, and Pinkerton agreed.” She added about Dolloff’s appearance at the U.S. Senate debate: “No gun was visible.”

Not all Denver TV stations have hired security, and some don’t want to talk about whether they do or don’t.

“We haven’t hired private security,” says Amanda Mountain, the president and CEO of Rocky Mountain PBS. Down the road at the Denver FOX Affiliate KDVR, general manager Byron Grandy says safety of the station’s employees is the highest priority. He added: “In the interest of keeping our staff safe, however, the specifics of these measures are best kept confidential.”

A news manager at another large Denver broadcast newsroom also said she preferred not to make public whether it hires private security.

Fallout for 9News

When Dolloff’s name emerged as the man who pulled the trigger, his background and personal life immediately became an archeological excavation site for journalists and Internet sleuths.

From Denverite:

Dolloff’s prior court records show a handful of traffic and money-related cases. A Facebook account for someone sharing his full name and other biographical information was connected to a farm selling honey, puppies and poultry in northeast Colorado. The farm’s now-suspended website showed Dolloff was to be married this year. A connected YouTube account showed farm footage and occasional political content, including footage of Occupy Wall Street and a Bernie Sanders rally in 2016. Right-wing influencers seized on those social media postings, which are unconfirmed, to pin him as a leftist and claim the shooting was politically motivated.

Colorado news outlets unspooled more information about him all week. They reported Dolloff had a valid concealed weapons permit in Elbert County and that the sheriff there was suspending it. They reported the City of Denver hasn’t been able to find a necessary license for him to work as a security guard and how that could cause trouble for the people and companies involved.

From The Colorado Sun and AP:

“Companies that employ unlicensed guards can have their licenses suspended or revoked and face fines. Individual guards who do not have licenses can be punished with a $999 fine and up to one year in jail.”

Other outlets have reported about the role of KUSA 9News, which is owned by parent company TEGNA.

“Channel 9 – hiring this person to do that for them — the first thing they should’ve done was ask for his armed guard badge prior to employing him,” KDVR quoted a retired SWAT sergeant and Denver security firm president saying.

Ryan Luby, a spokesman for Denver’s city attorney, set tongues wagging when he tweeted this Monday: “Regarding Matthew Dolloff, there could be civil or criminal actions taken, or both, against Mr. Dolloff, Pinkerton, @9NEWS , and/or any other entity that hired and deployed Dolloff in an unlicensed security guard capacity.”

A piece from the trade publication Radio and Television Business Report quotes a D.C. communications attorney questioning the instructions the guard had from the firm who hired him and what was in the contract. “But, none of that will necessarily lessen the public relations impact of this tragic event,” he adds.

9News management said in a statement: “9NEWS continues to cooperate fully with law enforcement and is deeply saddened by this loss of life.”

Moving forward: Bulletproof vests for Denver journalists?

Saturday’s events prompted many discussions in Denver newsrooms. One of them was an unsettling conversation about whether news outlets might outfit their journalists with personal protective equipment for future field reporting — and they weren’t talking about N95 masks.

“We have discussed bulletproof vests and have decided to purchase some protective gear,” said Rachel Estabrook, news director for Colorado Public Radio. She added that last weekend’s events informed the move.

The expanding CPR station, which also includes Denverite, is likely not the only newsroom talking about this, and those discussions underscore the notable challenges and pressures for local journalists amid the nation’s roiling political climate.

Estabrook said some journalists at her outlet “were vocal about wanting that extra layer of protection.” (Click here for an earlier discussion about journalists wearing “PRESS” vests during protests.)

If you know a newsroom or journalist who could use some advice, the Committee to Protect Journalists has resources online here.

More Colorado local news odds & ends

🆕The Colorado Press Association hired as its new CEO Tim Regan-Porter. He was the “founding executive director of the Center for Collaborative Journalism, a former Knight Fellow and a regional editor at McClatchy.”
⚖️ A photographer is suing The Aspen Daily News over an “alleged unemployment ‘scheme’.” The Aspen Daily News calls it “A series of unfortunate events.”
⚔️A Harvard NiemanLab story about how “entrepreneurial local journalists are fighting back against Alden Global Capital” leads with Denver.
🚫John Hickenlooper in a U.S. Senate debate about Big Tech and free speech: “I think we are long past the time where Facebook and these large media giants — these behemoth tech companies — they have to be responsible for what … [is] … truth or untruth.”
📣His opponent Cory Gardner during the same debate: “We … can’t allow our Big Tech companies in Silicon Valley to stifle legitimate speech whether it’s on the left or the right.”
💬From ColoradoPolitics on Monday: “This morning our team was doing some testing related to email newsletters and inadvertently sent out two news alerts to you that included content from our test environment.” (Here’s what they looked like.)
📹 October’s News Photographer magazine of the NPPA spotlights KUSA 9News and its 15 photojournalists as the Best of Photojournalism’s “Station of the Year.” (The station has won the award 14 times.)
🆓The nonprofit Colorado Newsline offers its journalism for free to republish.
🔎Might Colorado’s Supreme Court shine more light into judiciary secrecy?
🐍Let’s hope western U.S. newspaper owner Lee Enterprises stays away from Colorado, yeah?
🖊️Should journalism instructors teach a course called “Defense Against the Dark Arts?”
📡I’ll take “local election news” for 200, please, Alex.
✔️A new survey revealed the “hardships of covering a life-or-death [pandemic] story — and what challenges will linger.”
🗞️Why The Denver Post internship is important for young journos.
🗳️Do you like to know how a newsroom’s staffers are voting and why?
ℹ️Colorado reporter: “as a white journalist trying to write about a Hispanic community’s complex history, I needed guidance.”
🎙️KGNU is looking for a news director. ($45K-$50K)
💭Is your newsroom thinking about how you describe people?
📂Denverite’s editor offers a peek behind the curtain for part of a story.

*This column appears a little differently as a published version of a weekly e-mailed newsletter about Colorado local news and media. If you’d like to add your e-mail address for the unabridged versions, please subscribe HERE. Image via Giuseppe Cirasino on Flickr. 

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