Why TV Took So Long to Confirm Deaths at Boulder King Soopers

The law enforcement response to the shooting at the Boulder King Soopers as seen from the air.
The law enforcement response to the shooting at the Boulder King Soopers as seen from the air. ABC News via YouTube
Denver television stations provided wall-to-wall coverage of the tragic March 22 shooting at a Boulder King Soopers, in which ten people, including Boulder Police Officer Eric Talley, lost their lives (although CBS4 moved reportage to its app when it came time to broadcast a March Madness basketball game). However, all four of the market's major broadcast outlets — 9News, Denver7, Fox31 and CBS4 — waited for hours to confirm that the event caused multiple casualties, even though livestream video captured by citizen journalist Dean Schiller beginning before authorities arrived on the scene showed three victims.

As a result, many viewers across Colorado, and around the country, knew that the outlets weren't sharing very basic information about which they were fully aware. The stations, meanwhile, stuck rigidly to official sources who kept details to themselves even as they warned journalists and the public about social media misinformation that filled the vacuum during extended stretches.

Schiller is a controversial figure among Boulder law enforcement officials. We first spotlighted ZFG Videography, the YouTube channel overseen by Schiller and partner Jedon Kerr, in the February 2019 post "See Boulder Jail Cops Bust Men for Taking Video on Public Sidewalk." Back then, this was ZFG's bio on its website: "ZFG is a company dedicated to creating cutting-edge, captivating and entertaining digital media. We are a group of independent journalists and filmmakers who are prepared to push the boundaries of 'acceptable behavior' in order to inform and entertain the public."

Back in early 2019, according to attorney David Lane, who represents Schiller and Kerr, the pair took video inside the lobby of Boulder County jail before heading to a public sidewalk. There, despite having committed no crime, they were taken into custody, booked and held for approximately ninety minutes before being released; those Boulder actions prompted a lawsuit that June. At the time, Schiller explained the suit with this: "Cops and politicians shouldn't be above the law — no one should be."

When we asked Lane for an update on the lawsuit last week, he responded: "The case is still pending. It is in an unusual posture. All of the depositions have been completed and the Defense moved for summary judgment, which is normal. The unusual aspect is that the Plaintiffs have also moved for summary judgment, which is very unusual. We are awaiting a decision."

While Schiller waited, he captured the action on March 22. And his livestreams, which began just after 2:30 p.m., clearly irritated the BPD. At 4:18 p.m., the department tweeted: "Do NOT broadcast on social media any tactical information you might see." Multiple TV anchors and journalists referenced this warning during their coverage, stressing that they were being careful not to reveal any law enforcement tactics that might aid the gunman.

At that point, there was no evidence that Schiller's videos put anyone's life at further risk — and the images of two bodies outside the store and one inside were undeniable. But the mainstream outlets mostly avoided alluding to these images, and instead continued to stall in the hope that the cops would spill more information. The primary exception was Fox31, which was the first we saw to interview Schiller — but even that station waited until after 5 p.m. to confirm multiple casualties, including a police officer later identified as Talley. One station even quoted a 4:04 p.m. tweet from Governor Jared Polis, which used the word "tragedy," as a way of at least hinting at fatalities, rather than citing Schiller's livestream.

Authorities, meanwhile, took their time divulging information. In a 5:40 p.m. tweet previewing a press conference scheduled to start five minutes later (it didn't actually get under way until about 6:50 p.m.), the BPD teased: "This is your chance to hear directly from first responders — lots of speculation and some incorrect info on social media right now." Yet authorities did almost nothing to clear up inaccuracies, even refusing to offer an estimate on the number of victims under the pretext that family members hadn't been notified. How such a number would violate their privacy is unclear — but it took until a second press conference, after 8 p.m., for the department to ID Talley and say that a total of ten people had been killed.

There's no question that a lot of the material shared on social media on the afternoon of March 22 was deeply flawed, including assertions that two officers beyond Talley had been hurt; officials later said the only known injury was to the suspect, who had a visible leg wound when he was led to an ambulance by cops. But Schiller's video was proof positive of casualties — and by not at least touching on what it showed, Denver TV journalists undermined their own credibility at the very moment they needed it the most.

Click to see the ZFG Videography livestream, which currently has more than 567,000 views. Warning: Its contents are disturbing.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts