Unfortunately covering mass shootings keeps happening. I might even argue that journalism schools should seriously consider offering courses or at least workshops on the ethical challenges of covering these types of events. Journalists need guidelines. The coverage of these events can truly make or break our credibility with the audience long term. The subject matter is getting harder and harder to take as an audience. They are all too happy to be done with you and your coverage.
In my current role, I am finding myself having to train producers and managers on how to cover these events not only as they happen, but in the days after. RTDNA came out with an excellent article that everyone should book mark with solid ways to check the ethics of your content. But this Survive article is going to focus on different types of litmus tests that you need to start implementing.
RTDNA article mentions that stations should have breaking news coverage plans and guidelines. I whole heartedly agree. BUT I worked for several companies over the years that REF– USED to make these types of plans because they feared someone would not follow the plans. A mistake, when there was a guideline or perceived guideline, could make the company more liable. Yes you did read that right. Nothing in writing. Just whispers among managers.
And there is another big issue we have to consider: These shootings often happen when managers are not in the station and are hardest to reach. You know the middle of the night and the weekend. Guidelines would be fantastic. But for those of you stuck in the same world I lived in, you likely will go through the beginning part of this coverage basically alone. Most staffs on the weekend are simply a producer, a reporter, hopefully a photojournalist and the assignment desk person (If you don’t have to double duty and answer the phones while you produce.) doing the best they can. The anchors come later. So this article is geared more toward that bare bones team. It also is geared toward when the story hits and its not in your DMA but you have to put it on the air. This is the kind of training that just doesn’t happen much. You do the best you can and hope you don’t screw up.
The biggest things to consider as a TV journalist when these stories hit are as follows:
What does the scene look like (as in can I show anything)?
How reliable is the information I am getting?
Could this situation keep changing?
Is this too hard to take as a viewer?
When do we stop covering the story?
Now this list looks weird and I will fully admit on the surface is nowhere near as ethically clear a set of questions as the RTDNA article I referenced above. Remember, have that handily bookmarked ok?
This is the list though that any producer in any size market is IMMEDIATELY faced with solving. Remember, I am writing this article as though it is not happening in your DMA. I mentioned the other players in the newsroom because they will become your co-gut checkers throughout this list as you design coverage. This will make more sense when you read some previous articles on gut checking.
TV news is visual. You have to consider the scene images IMMEDIATELY. I have this idea listed first for a very important reason. Most often we lose credibility with the viewer over HOW we show the story. Yes. SHOW. That is even more impactful than what we say. Why? Because of how people take in information fundamentally as they learn. Look at this interesting set of facts about visual learning which sites many sources. Common thought is 65 percent of people are VISUAL learners. So they are watching that video and teaching themselves about it as they watch. Just stop and really think about that for a moment. Survive has long preached the “show it explain it” idea of writing to video. This is why. People turn on the TV to SEE what is happening. So you have to first and foremost think about how that looks to them. I am going to take the Las Vegas shooting video as an example. Hearing the rapid fire and seeing the people running and ducking for cover was INTENSE. It was hard to take. We can all agree on that. It was very important to show. But it was hard to take. And you had to immediately ask, “How often do I want to play this in my newscast?” “What do we say as we show this?” This is where your co-journalists come in handy. Ask them to scan your rundown (since hopefully everyone is mobile enough to take a peek). Ask them to watch the video. How many times would they want to hear those gunshots an hour? Is that interview just too hard to watch? Gut check each other.
Now because you are focusing on video first, it can be easier to sniff out information that just does not make sense. Too often you look at the breaking alerts and run with the information, then tell the editor to just slam down whatever video is available. This is one of the areas that causes not only fact errors, but also shows a detachment to the coverage of the story that viewers sense and find annoying. I cannot tell you how many times I hear anchors say one thing, and the images seem to show either nothing even close to that description or the opposite. You have to consider images first if they exist. And nowadays the wait time for images is usually short. You cannot take video at face value for sure, but images partnered with fact checking will help you root through information that doesn’t match up. It just sets up your brain to be more discerning from the beginning. Also remember if something you read or hear just seems weird to you, trust your gut, double and triple check.
Could this situation keep changing is something you need to constantly ask yourself. This will help you design the coverage in a way that allows you to change things up more easily. Whether it is determining how often to show a piece of video, or to hold off a bit on that sheriff soundbite or witness testimony. Are you expecting more sound in 15 minutes? It also helps you look at your chyrons with a more critical eye. Remember, visuals imprint on people’s memories more than words. When you super how many dead, knowing there is a good chance the situation could change, it is harder for the viewer to discern this is fluid information.I t doesn’t matter if there is a breaking news banner. Viewers tune graphic packaging like live bugs and breaking news banners out way more than journalists often realize. In their eyes, you could be putting up an error, and keeping it on the screen. When you are trying to understand something of the magnitude of a mass shooting, the simpler the better all around: Your graphics treatment, what chyron says, your full screens lines and images. Everything. Keep it simple and clear. Asking will this change will help remind you to look closely at what you are writing right then. Will it stand up to the test of time or are you assuming things?
You will not get all the facts right likely because these situations are fluid. But too many newsrooms accept “oh well it was breaking” as an excuse not to be critical over every element and look ahead for possible discrepancies, changes and frankly facts that seem a little off. You have to question everything you see and hear. Do not just assume it was fact checked. Asking “could this change“ helps you see possible holes in the story as it develops.
The next question delves into designing a newscast that viewers can emotionally handle. When something intense like this happens it is hard for you to emotionally detach from all you are seeing and hearing. Many feel an INTENSE need to cram every little element in and really play up the emotion of it all because you are saturated by it yourseld. Frankly it can become very all consuming. Now let me say, I am not encouraging you to downplay anything, but keeping it simple, sticking to what you really need to know about what’s happening right now, helps you decide what to include and what to leave out. A lot of coverage now is getting preachy. If we can agree to focus on showing what is going on and letting the events play out without adding additional commentary, it will greatly help you put a newscast on the air that the viewer can emotionally handle. When we insert our own emotions heavily into the copy, or add a lot of adjectives and adverbs it can actually make the viewer detach from the intense reality of this. 9/11 coverage was very impactful because there was very little of the anchors and reporters talking about their feelings on air. They let the people in the middle of the events talk. They literally opened a window for us to experience what was happening. You could keep watching or turn away when needed. The commentary came later. With such an emotionally charged nation right now, its really important that journalists focus on the 5 w’s first. Your emotions are important as a person. But let viewers have a window into the event that is not clouded by your opinion of the events. This is where those gut checks with coworkers is super important. And this is where you try and wake up your manager in the middle of the night to ask, “Is this enough coverage or too much?” If they do not respond, just ask these questions repeatedly of yourself and do the best you can.
The final question to ask when designing coverage is when do we stop covering the story? The answer is really almost too simple. When you run out of new information to share. Not a new video or soundbite that is similar to the last 10 you ran. New information. When you run out of the facts, and have allowed viewers to witness some of the event with good use of video and sound, then recap and move on for a bit. Viewers appreciate you not droning on and on. They understand this is a big deal. Frankly all of us sometimes need to “turn off” the event for a few minutes to let it sink in. Droning on and on with nothing new actually causes people to emotionally detach and lose interest. Again, I think we can all agree these events are too large scale to risk alienating the audience. Remember, this article is focused on when the event is not in your DMA. When to stop covering an event gets more complicated when it is in your DMA. Do not fear waking up your bosses to ask if this is enough coverage as well. Especially if there’s no guidelines to go by. If you cannot get a call back, focusing on not repeating information over and over, will help you make this key decision.
I sincerely hope this article helps you be able to discern what to show, what to report and when to take a break from coverage. These events are not as clear cut as most breaking news, so you have to remember question everything especially hard. Really look at your sources. And lean on fellow journalists to do the best you can to give the most accurate information. Once coverage ends, write down what worked and didn’t. Over time you will have a more established outline for coverage of mass shootings to go by as a frame of reference.