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Inside the newsroom: The drone strike hit, then the quest for understanding began

Protesters mourn during a demonstration over the U.S. airstrike in Iraq that killed Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, shown in the posters, in Tehran, Iran, Jan. 3, 2020. Iran has vowed “harsh retaliation” for the U.S. airstrike near Baghdad’s airport that killed Tehran’s top general and the architect of its interventions across the Middle East, as tensions soared in the wake of the targeted killing.
Vahid Salemi, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — The United States with the rest of the world is on alert. Iran is promising retaliation for the the American MQ-9 Reaper drone strike, authorized by President Donald Trump, that killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, described as one of Iran’s top security and intelligence commanders, and also a man behind the deaths of hundreds of Americans,

As the New York Times and all the world’s media reported Saturday, “tens of thousands of pro-Iranian fighters marched through Baghdad, waving flags and chanting that ‘revenge is coming’ to the United States.” The protesters were also mourning the loss of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a government official and Iraqi militia commander.

As those protests continued, President Trump warned Iran in a series of Tweets that if it retaliates against America or its citizens, the U.S. has identified 52 Iranian sites that “will be hit very fast and very hard.” The president tweeted those words in capital letters.

It was not difficult to identify the drone strike as the most important story of the week. When such an action occurs, it becomes the prism through which local news, national news and international news is reported.

Inside the newsroom, news of this nature can arrive by wire service alert, White House or Pentagon alert, or by Twitter. Prior to the Internet age, ticker tape came into a newsroom from the Associated Press or United Press International with news. When it was urgent or important news, such as an attack, a bell on the ticker tape machine would sound to make sure it immediately caught the attention of editors.

This system was in place in 1979 when 52 American diplomats and citizens were taken hostage in Iran, a siege that lasted for 444 days, ending only when the transition from President Jimmy Carter to President Ronald Reagan took place on January 20, 1981. That number remained significant for President Trump Saturday when he noted the 52 targets identified as he used Twitter to warn Iran.

Sometimes a story breaks unwittingly through social media. When the Pakistan compound of Osama Bin Laden was raided May 2, 2011 shortly before 1 a.m., a resident in a neighboring building noticed something was going on and put it on social media. He didn’t know it was an attack on Bin Laden, but it highlights the threat to covert military operations that so many people have cellphones and can publish through social media to everywhere in the world.

The first question a journalist asks is, “What happened?” Getting those facts correct is key to providing perspective. Iraqi TV reported the attack, which was then picked up by international correspondents for major media, like CNN and the New York Times. The Pentagon issued statements.

The Deseret News reported the immediate reactions of Utah’s congressional delegation with Sen. Mitt Romney the first to respond.

Perhaps more important than “what happened” is answering why did it happen and what does it mean? That’s where we started Friday morning.

We continued to get congressional reaction out of Washington. Deseret News reporter Dennis Romboy wrote and continued to update a story with that reaction. We also came together as reporters and editors to find those who can offer important perspective.

Miles Hansen is the former director for Gulf Affairs on the National Security Council in the Trump administration. He now heads up the World Trade Center in Salt Lake City, building trade opportunities for the state. We knew he could offer expert commentary on the drone strike.

Romboy interviewed him, as did Deseret News Opinion Editor Boyd Matheson, who also used some of the content for KSL Newsradio where he hosts an hourlong program called “Inside Sources.” Hansen certainly fits that description as he understands the decision-making process that goes into such a consequential international action. We also reached out to experts at the University of Utah.

We were in touch with our correspondent Dodge Billingsley, who has worked in some of the most dangerous areas of the Middle East. In December his news analysis on Ukraine cut through some of the impeachment proceedings in a story headlined: “Want to understand Ukraine? We go behind the headlines to reveal how U.S. military aid thwarts Russia.”

Friday he brought readers a look at how the U.S. has used drones through the Bush and Obama administrations and the legal questions at play in a news analysis headlined: “Did drone strike on an Iranian general set a dangerous global precedent?

Religion reporter Kelsey Dallas pitched a story on the mixed reaction of the world’s religious community and delivered the story: “After killing of Iranian general, religious leaders call on Americans to #PrayForPeace.” Her story offered the different perspectives of those who weigh the spiritual and moral implications of ordering an action that results in death. Did the drone strike make it more or less likely to have peace in the Middle East?

Herb Scribner monitors social media and is also expert at providing quick-hit information for readers who come to a story late, or need to play catch-up. His story headlined, “Don’t understand what happened between the U.S. and Iran? “Here’s your 60-second explainer” was posted to the web at midday Friday and provided a foundation for readers to consume the in-depth news and commentary that would follow..

Scribner offered one other story, about the World War III memes that were appearing online. This offered readers a view at how the world’s population was responding and raised important question for more in-depth reporting: How likely is this to launch a war with Iraq?

It’s just one day in the newsroom, that also included interviews with Salt Lake City’s incoming mayor, Erin Mendenhall, who will be sworn in Monday, and a report that girls wrestling is probably going to be Utah’s newest sanctioned high school sport this year.

But the drone strike is the story that will continue to linger and it will continue to impact all of us. And we don’t need a wire service bell today to alert us to its import.

Doug Wilks is editor of the Deseret News.