Covering The Charlie Hebdo Massacre

Catherine Lankes found herself in the midst of a major developing story (Pic: Rob Crew)

Catherine Lankes found herself in the midst of a major developing story (Pic: Rob Crew)

Language student Catherine Lankes had never done any field reporting, but found herself in Paris covering the Charlie Hebdo shootings through sheer chance. She explains how she coped with being thrown in at the deep end…

I went to France as an Erasmus exchange student after quitting my job as a staff reporter at Austria’s largest daily in Vienna. I had been there for nearly half a year when the Charlie Hebdo massacre took place.

On Wednesday, January 7th 2015, I was shopping in the French capital when I got a push notification on my phone about a terrorist attack on a Paris newspaper. I was horrified and appalled. I also felt a twinge of guilt that while all this was going on I was out shopping.

And then my phone rang. It was a former editor, asking if I was still ‘busy on holiday’ and, if not, did I fancy some reporting?

It was an easy decision.

In a rush of adrenaline I hurried back home, grabbed a notebook and got on the next métro. My editor told me to get as close as I could to the Charlie Hebdo newsroom. He wanted me to talk to people and to get some photos, to get what he described as ‘the feeling on site.’ He assured me that I was under no pressure, and that I should just do what I could before he called me back. He was quite aware of the fact that I had never done real field reporting all on my own before.

I had no clue at all. All I knew was that I had to stay calm and that I had to trust my gut. The worst thing I could do was panic and think about all those people who would potentially be reading my coverage of a horrifying, yet captivating, story. I did not want to screw this up.

Once I arrived on site, I immediately felt I didn’t belong there. All those journalists looked professional, experienced and well-equipped. They were working in slickly operated teams. I was the opposite; a beginner, alone with her notebook and no clue whatsoever. What the hell was I supposed to be doing exactly?

I got nervous. I half-expected someone to walk up to me and uncover my disguise. And yet, it never happened. Nobody seemed to care. Nobody asked for my press ID (which I did not have) and nobody questioned my presence. When I realised that, I instantly became more confident.

It almost felt like I was playing the role of the special correspondent in some kind of theatre performance. I wasn’t me anymore. This 21-year-old Austrian language student who had been thrown into the deep end no longer existed. All I needed to do was play my part.

I started interviewing eyewitnesses, talking to police officers and opening my eyes and ears for any morsel of useful information. After two hours of running around and gathering material, I headed to a minuscule café nearby to file my work. The place was buzzing with journalists.

Laptops, cameras, mobile phones, scribbled-upon notebooks, empty coffee cops – every possible inch seemed to be occupied with them and their equipment. There were reporters from all over – the guy sitting across the table wrapped up his story in Portuguese, behind me were two British TV reporters, and there I was on the phone discussing my work in German.

I was exhausted by the time I sent my email to my former editor, and relieved. I knew that I had played a role in covering a hugely significant global story. I’ve been back to Paris since, and while I was there I visited the Place de la République. The statue is still plastered with notes, graffiti and ‘Je suis Charlie’ placards, and as I stood in front of it I still couldn’t quite believe I was present to witness and report on everything as it all unfolded.

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