A 26-year-old man in Sutherland Springs, Texas entered a church during Sunday prayer and opened fire on the congregation with a gun, killing 26 people and injuring at least 20 more. This happened around a month after a mass shooting in Las Vegas, in which 59 people died and more than 500 other people were injured. In both cases, the motives remain unclear.
What is clear, however, is that journalists are finding themselves covering crises, disasters and violent outbursts more frequently these days and the dividing lines on how best to cover them can vary wildly.
Reporting on crises and disasters can be exceptionally difficult for journalists for many reasons. First, the humanity factor kicks in for a lot of people, making it hard for them to get past the horror of what they have just seen and focus on telling the story. Even veteran journalists can get mentally “frozen” by the horrific nature of things like what happened in Texas on Sunday.
Second, information during these events comes at the journalists rapidly and with little in the way of verification. This becomes even more difficult as social media often floods the area with innuendo, suppositions and even intentionally false information. Journalists have to rely on their experience as well as their personal “BS detectors” to separate fact and rumor.
Third, people often have agendas, personal interests and other angles on what has happened, thus making them suspicious of coverage or unwilling to suspend their own beliefs to examine the situation the way journalists hope they will. In short, the goal for good news reporting has always been: We put the facts out there, you read them and judge for yourself. Unfortunately, with the blurred line between credible news and whatever else is out there, we don’t always have that simple step-by-step approach to stories like this one.
We’ve covered at length stories of disasters, violence, chaos and more here, so to avoid beating a dead horse (something we also actually touched on sort of), here are three simple thoughts to help you avoid the partisan pitfalls and maybe reach a broader audience in a situation like this:
1) Memes aren’t news: If you want to really convince me of something, a pretty good way not to do that is to use a meme in your argument. Memes can be funny or cute or contain a major “zinger” but they have the same news value as your average bumper sticker. Here are a few that landed in my Facebook feed:
There might be information in here worth something, but it’s probably half-true and it’s probably not helpful to you. (Also, when you misspell a name, like the first meme did, you pretty much lose the high ground in a fact fight.) Whether you’re trying to assemble a web story, a social media post or anything else, do your best to avoid the rantings of the “LOLCATS” crowd.
2) Specialty topics require specialized sources: One of the main reasons journalists look for expert sources when covering a topic is to make sure they are accurate and clear on expert-level details. People who get to know a topic extremely well will often reject information that gets base-level details wrong, especially if that content comes from people they view as interlopers.
Ben Hallman of The Trace, a journalism site that focuses on gun-based issues and topics, wrote about how journalists often fail when cover guns because they lack knowledge about them. In generalizing or misrepresenting basic facts about guns (Hallman recalls a CNN story about “bump stocks” after the Las Vegas shooting that showed a gun with a grenade launcher, but no actual “bump stock.”), it allows people who are experts to tune out or disregard other important information within the story.
Hallman notes that people have often mischaracterized certain weapons as “assault rifles” when they were actually “semi-automatic weapons.” Other similar errors occurred in explaining Kelley’s status with the military. Early reports noted he had been “dishonorably discharged,” which wasn’t accurate either. He actually was court-martialed in 2012 and received a bad conduct discharge, which indicates he was specifically punished for some sort of egregious activity.
These things sound similar to people like me who don’t know much about either topic, but to experts, it sounds like fingernails on a chalkboard. People who are really into their fields can really dig in on stuff like this. If you don’t believe me, look at the analysis archery enthusiasts applied to the techniques Jennifer Lawrence displayed in “The Hunger Games” series and the approach to archery Jeremy Renner had in “The Avengers” movies.
When you have a topic that needs expert-level clarity, consult an expert before moving forward.
3) Attribute everything: One of the dumbest arguments I’ve ever had about attributions came from a student in a newsroom. It went something like this:
Me: “You need to attribute that information to the source.”
Reporter: “I don’t know… It’s kind of a shitty source and it might make me look bad if people know where the information came from.”
Me: (Head hits desk repeatedly) “Then why would you include that information from that source?”
Reporter: “Well, I don’t want to miss out on anything on this story.”
At the end of the day, attributions are like insurance policies: You probably don’t think much about them until a disaster strikes and then you are desperately clinging to them as your only hope of salvation. This plays a bit into both of the previous two items, in that if you have an expert on fire arms calling the person’s weapon an “assault rifle,” it carries more weight than when you quote some random schmoe who just saw the guy running by carrying a long gun. If you can attribute information to a police source, you have sturdier ground upon which to stand than if you are relying on witnesses who might be scared, confused or hurt. In either case, telling people WHERE you got the information is almost more important than the information itself.
I hope this will be the last post on how to cover things like this for a while. Either way, if you have questions or thoughts, post below or contact me via the contact page.