Story by Gwen Florio, photo by Sarah Chaput de Saintonge, illustration by Kristin Kirkland
Missoulian crime reporter Kate Haake is thankfully free on weekends from checking the police blotter and court schedules that are the go-to sources for stories on her beat. But habit is hard to break. She still skims Twitter, keeping on top of the news so as not to face any Monday morning surprises.
On Sunday, April 27, 2014, a tweet from her newspaper snagged her gaze. “Unarmed teenager shot, killed in Grant Creek garage; resident arrested.”
“Oh, shit,” Haake clicked on the story.
The victim, Diren Dede, was 17. “The male resident of the house reportedly found the intruder in his garage after an alarm went off, and shot him with a shotgun,” the story said. The homeowner was being held on suspicion of homicide. In a city that averages fewer than five murders a year, this meant automatic front-page news. Factor in the death of a teenager, and the story’s impact heightened exponentially.
Several thousand miles away, in Washington, D.C., a different combination of words on Twitter grabbed Karin Assmann’s attention: German and shot. As a correspondent for Spiegel TV, affiliated with Der Spiegel, the German weekly newsmagazine with a circulation of 880,000, Assmann’s job is to report on U.S. news of particular interest to Germans. The death of a German teenager far from home fit the bill. And, just as with Montana news organizations, the manner of death made the story even more compelling.
Gun ownership is strictly regulated in Germany. The Small Arms Survey, a Switzerland-based international research project, found there to be one gun-related death per 100,000 residents in Germany in 2013, compared to 10 in the United States. Germans are keenly aware of, and fascinated by, that difference. Thus stories involving gun culture in the United States “are always stories that an editor will take,” Assmann said.
She’d already worked her maximum number of days for the pay period. But with a story of this magnitude, it didn’t matter. Der Spiegel needed a magazine story, and Spiegel TV wanted her to produce a show. Assmann was going to Montana.
The Monday after the shooting, local reporters still had the story largely to themselves. They listened at Markus Kaarma’s initial court appearance as his attorney invoked Montana’s Castle Doctrine, which gives legal immunity to someone who kills an intruder as long as he is afraid of being harmed or losing his life.
By Tuesday and Wednesday, reporters from national and international publications—among them Assmann and Spiegel colleague Marc Hujer—hit the ground in Missoula.
They began the tap dance familiar to reporters who “parachute” into unfamiliar places to cover breaking stories, working out of motel rooms and rental cars, tapping information into their phones and laptops between interviews. They sought to capture the story’s essence in just two or three days, resulting in the sort of sleep deprivation that benefits local coffee shops.
The competition for interviews can be daunting, with sources already besieged with calls from local reporters. Given the choice of calling back people with whom they’re on a first-name basis, or responding to requests from publications several time zones away, sources frequently opt for the former.
The reverse is true when working the international angle. Even before leaving Washington, Assmann sought the German embassy’s help in reaching Dede’s father, Celal. That groundwork helped Der Spiegel pull off a scoop. Assmann and Hujer were the only people to snag an in-person interview with Celal Dede when he came to Missoula to bring his son’s body home.
The interview with Celal Dede had not yet been granted when Assmann arrived in Missoula. She, Hujer, and local photographer Lido Vizzutti spent a grueling day interviewing one of Dede’s soccer coaches. They also sought—unsuccessfuly—interviews with the Big Sky High School principal and guidance counselor, setting up interviews with students they met at Big Sky while trying to reach the administrators, and finally, at the end of their day, getting the call to meet Celal Dede.
The right interview can also be a matter of luck. None of Assmann’s telephone calls to Dede’s host family had been returned. But when Der Spiegel’s team went to the family’s neighborhood for photos of the home, the host parents were outside arranging a memorial on the lawn. Often, people are more apt to speak to a reporter standing in front of them than a voice on the other end of a telephone, and that was the case for Assmann. “They were very open to talking,” she said.
Assmann said she did not, as some national and international journalists do, try the shortcut of contacting local reporters and seeking their sources. Instead, she read local stories and figured out the sources for herself. Not that it did much good. “I spent some time trying to get law enforcement, etc., to go on the record,” Assmann wrote in an email, “to no avail.”
In the Missoulian newsroom, Haake and others got plenty of calls from outside reporters trying to take that shortcut. Haake patiently directed them to the Missoula Police Department and the County Attorney’s Office. Several of the callers, she said, also focused on the subject that so intrigued Der Spiegel’s readers.
“Guns,” said Haake. “There’s that stereotype that has life in Germany and the rest of the world—that this is the Wild West, that we love our guns.”
As Haake juggled those requests with her own work, she tried to convey some perspective to those callers, pointing out “that a lot of gun owners are really responsible.”
Overseas, though, puzzlement reigned.
Basak, Dede’s older sister who lives in Hamburg, asked the reporters from Der Spiegel: “How can you shoot someone just because he comes into your garage?”
It was, said Der Spiegel, “the question that nobody has an answer for.”
In Missoula, it seemed nearly everyone had an answer.
Debate raged over the shooting—over guns themselves, and the Castle Doctrine, too. Stories about the case routinely logged dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of comments.
“Welcome to Montana, where the residents have the right to defend themselves! Please don’t threaten us because we will shoot! I LOVE MY STATE!” a woman calling herself “buckshot mama” posted on the Missoulian’s site.
“This law is mostly working for bullies. It is doing more harm than good,” responded someone with the screen name “Avalanche Creek.”
Missoulian Editor Sherry Devlin began to notice something else in the comments. German residents logged onto the Missoulian website to express their own opinions in a discussion that moved away from guns.
“Over time, it devolved into Germans arguing over the fact that he was Turkish.” (Dede’s family emigrated from Turkey to Germany, and he was buried in Turkey.)
In Germany, that ethnic issue, which barely surfaced in Montana papers, got personal. Der Spiegel reported one of Hamburg’s soccer clubs had to turn off the comment function on its website after a multitude of xenophobic postings.
Missoula journalist Mike Gerrity has seen the gun story from both sides. In 2010, he freelanced a long-form story on gun culture for Die Tageszeitung, the German daily newspaper commonly referred to as taz.
“For me, the concept that 9 of 10 people have guns is not that impressive,” Gerrity said. To his surprise, his German editor thought otherwise. “It really got me to pull myself out of this geographical box.”
As part of the story, Gerrity bought a .38-caliber handgun and took a firearms safety class. The longer he had the gun, he said, “the more I found myself preoccupied with what kind of scenario might arise where I’d have to use it.”
The fascination ended when he needed money for a security deposit. He sold the gun.
The foray into Missoula by the overseas reporters covering the Dede case was equally short-lived. Der Spiegel’s team left town after just a few days. Their report, translated for the magazine’s English-language website, made the rounds in Missoula. Then the magazine’s coverage moved on to other news.
Just as the Missoulian ran an Associated Press story crediting a German news outlet for quotes from Diren Dede’s father, overseas media sourced its occasional updates to Montana news organizations that continued to cover legal developments in the case.
In an era of global information, local and international media often borrow from each other with only the most spectacular events likely to bring the full diversity of journalistic voices and perspectives. After all, whatever happens with Kaarma, and no matter how much reporting is done by journalists on either side of the Atlantic Ocean, it will not resolve the issue that brought the overseas reporters here in the first place.
As Der Spiegel noted in its story: “The tragedy sheds light on a side of America that will likely always remain foreign to many Europeans. It reveals a country where freedom is more important than anything else. And that includes the freedom to defend one’s own property—with violence if necessary.”
Longtime journalist Gwen Florio has reported breaking news stories around the country and the world. She is now a novelist and an adjunct professor at the University of Montana’s School of Journalism.
Sidebar: Montana Makes Headlines
The Diren Dede case wasn’t the only major news story from Montana to grab space in newspapers across the country in 2014. In February, a deadly avalanche rolled down Mt. Jumbo in Missoula, hitting a residential neighborhood and burying three people. Glacier National Park was the site of two major stories, including a close encounter between a hiker and a bear, and the saga of a newlywed who pleaded guilty to pushing her husband off a cliff.