Four things you can learn from Tom Llamas’ “looting” tweets

It’s easy to play Monday Morning Quarterback on a lot of decisions that happen while on the job. I go back to what legendary Cleveland Indians broadcaster Herb Score used as his “Two Rules” for announcing games:

  1. It’s never “us” or “we.” It’s always “the team,” “The Tribe,” or “the Indians,” but never “us” or “we.”
  2. Don’t be so quick to second guess. Sometimes, there’s a good reason a guy made a bad play.

The benefit of hindsight here is to figure out what should or shouldn’t happen NEXT TIME or when YOU end up in that situation as opposed to berating people who made the mistakes in the first place.

With that in mind, consider the case of ABC News Anchor Tom Llamas and the coverage of Hurricane Harvey’s aftermath.

Llamas was in Houston covering the flood when he noted that people were “looting” a grocery store (more on that term later). He not only reported these people to the police, but he tweeted about it to the public:


This spread quickly through social media, with many people condemning Llamas for a variety of things including diverting rescue workers’ attention away from search and rescue, acting in a manner incongruent with journalism ethics and generally ratting out people who were trying to survive. Llamas later clarified his initial statement that he “mentioned” to police that people with “covered faces” were going into the store. That did little to stem the tide of Twitter rage (and meme magic) that followed.

Let’s break down a couple things here in hopes of learning something out of this mess:

  1. Terminology matters: The use of the term “looting” is almost always loaded and it has been used in previous coverage of natural disasters in some truly ugly ways. A famous pairing of images from Hurricane Katrina demonstrates how word choice can matter in this regard:

    Notice that in the first photo, the term “looting” is used to describe the person carrying groceries. In the second photo the people are said to be “finding” groceries from a local store. In both cases, the same action is occurring: People taking stuff from a store, without paying for it (no duh), in the wake of a disaster in hopes of surviving. However, as many people have pointed out, the key difference is that the person in photo one is black and the people in photo two are white.
    In short, according to the media, black people “loot” stuff while white people miraculously “find” things. Always keep in mind the connotation behind word choices and how they can do harm in situations like this.

  2. Understand your ethical code: Ethics are a big part of what we do in journalism and the question of what Llamas should or should not have done fits into that. Several people quoted the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics in condemning Llamas’ actions, including this portion on minimizing harm:

    Show compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage. Use heightened sensitivity when dealing with juveniles, victims of sex crimes, and sources or subjects who are inexperienced or unable to give consent. Consider cultural differences in approach and treatment.

    The Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA) code of ethics is even more specific about how journalists should act in a situation involving victims:

    o Journalism provides enormous benefits to self-governing societies. In the process,it can create inconvenience, discomfort and even distress. Minimizing harm, particularly to vulnerable individuals, should be a consideration in every editorial and ethical decision.

    o Responsible reporting means considering the consequences of both the newsgathering – even if the information is never made public – and of the material’s potential dissemination. Certain stakeholders deserve special consideration; these include children, victims, vulnerable adults and others inexperienced with American media.

    In short, the code of ethics for your profession should serve as a road map for you as you are going into the field, especially if it’s a dicey situation. I know I didn’t read the code of ethics vigorously every time I went to a planning and zoning committee meeting, but when I was faced with a tough decision, it really did serve as a nice set of parameters to help me figure some things out.

  3. It’s not about you: Journalists should report the news. They should not be the news. We are the frame to display the content. Nobody goes to the Louvre, sees the “Mona Lisa” and walks away thinking, “WOW! What a great frame on that painting!” The more involved you get in the story, the more you draw attention to yourself and the less the story is about the people involved. As much as it feels great to be important and “part of the saga,” just tell people what happened.
  4. Think, then act: You can find a dozen or more things that could have gone better if thought preceded action in this case. Ponder the following items as “One To Grow On” moments:
    1. Figure out why you are going to do something before you do it: Why was it important to tell the police about the grocery store? Was it more important than the dead body or a dozen other things they could have been doing? Was anyone in danger in the store, as in people were beating other people to death over a can of vegetable beef soup?
    2. “Dig Me” rarely works: Why was it so important to let your 22,100 Twitter followers know that YOU called the cops on somebody?
    3. Avoid swinging and missing twice: If you are going to take a second swing at a topic where people are already in a frenzy, it’s probably worth putting some time and effort into it. At the very least, do better than toning down the language from “We informed police about looting” to we “mentioned we saw ppl w/faces covered going into a supermarket nearby.” This is something anyone in public relations or who works in crisis com would have clearly pointed out.

What I don’t know and what would be interesting to find out would be to see what Tom Llamas thinks now in the wake of the decision. Would he do it again? Is he sorry he did it at all? Were there actual ramifications (I can’t find info on if the people in the store were arrested or if resources were diverted or if other things got worse because of his decision) to his decision?

I sent him a message asking for any insight, but something tells me he might be avoiding reading Twitter for a while. I’ll keep you posted if he gets back to me.

2 thoughts on “Four things you can learn from Tom Llamas’ “looting” tweets

  1. markpoepsel says:

    Note the date of those AP and AFP photos – same date, different news agencies and obviously different races of people in the photos. Many variables at play, but also IT’S THE SAME AS TODAY’S DATE, how fitting, sadly.

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