The front page of the Daily Tarheel, the student newspaper at the University of North Carolina, captured the chaos of the active-shooter situation on that campus this week through an amazing “type-attack” approach comprised of text messages sent during the event:
The staff’s efforts on this are commendable, even as the situation that spurred their efforts has become far too common. I realized this when I typed “shooting” into the search engine for the blog and came back with far too many posts on the topic.
For today’s “Throwback Thursday” post, we go to late 2021 and go through a primer on covering shootings and chaos I put together at an educator’s request. As much as I hope it will help folks who need it, I really hope a lot fewer people will need it in the future…
After I ran Thursday’s post on the mass-shooting event in Michigan, a fellow journalism educator posted a note and a request:
I want to get your Dynamics of News Reporting and Writing to read your thoughts on covering shootings.I teach near Philadelphia, the City if Brotherly Love, that surpassed an annual record of 500 people shot and killed—in 11 months. I am very sad a Temple University student returning from Thanksgiving weekend was shot twice in the chest in broad daylight by a 19-year-old who was trying to carjack him.Whether shootings are individual or en masse, we must be sensitive to victims and families while seeking answers to curb the killings.
Reporting on things like shootings, hurricanes, car crashes and other sorts of mayhem doesn’t really lend itself to a lot of guidelines. I can tell you what I’ve done or what I’ve seen, but at the end of the day, how you react to something is entirely your own doing. While we can read press releases and talk about crime, you never know how you’ll react once you’re on the scene of something.
Until you’ve seen a man get pulled out of a thresher or stood 3 feet from a shooting victim’s dead body, you really don’t know how it will impact you in the short term or the long term.
That said, experience has been a pretty good teacher for me, as a crime reporter, a criminal justice editor and a student media adviser, so here is my best advice on how to work a shooting or other chaotic event for the first time.
We’ll look at what to do (or not do) during your reporting phase, your writing phase and your “afterward” phase.
PRIMARY REPORTING ADVICE:
Here are two key pieces of advice when it comes to covering these types of events:
Stay Calm: Things can be blowing up all around you or you might never have seen that much blood before in your life. You may be fighting the urge to throw up. Whatever it is, you need to keep your head about you.
A panicking reporter is a useless reporter. You need to take a deep breath and focus on the task at hand.
Stay Safe: Police and fire rescue folks are trying to do their job. You are trying to do your job. Sometimes, those efforts conflict with each other. Regardless of how important you feel you are, you need to realize that their needs trump your needs at the scene of a shooting or other similar event. In many cases, they put up special tape to keep you out of harm’s way. In other cases, they tell you where to stand or where not to stand.
You need to understand that the shooter might still be out there, which can be dangerous or deadly for you or other people. Even if the shooter is dead or captured, police are likely still in a state of high tension, looking for other shooters or dangerous devices. You wandering around where you’re not supposed to be can create serious problems for them and you might be mistakenly viewed as a danger to them or others. Adrenaline and watching too many “journalism movies” can make us feel emboldened to break the rules to get a major scoop.
Even when the authorities aren’t there to tell you what to do, you need to make sure you use common sense. Don’t stand up against a burning building to do your stand up. Don’t drive into a flood zone and then expect people to bail you out.
Whatever is going on around you, you need to make sure you’re safe and sound. A dead reporter isn’t much more useful than a panicking one.
OTHER REPORTING ADVICE
Use official sources when possible: When we talk about privilege in law, what we are talking about is the right to quote official sources, who are acting in their official capacity, without fear. This generally applies to judges rendering verdicts, congress-folks making proclamations from the floor and probably the pope. In some cases, it also applies to law-enforcement officials and fire folks who are working the scene of what’s going on. Relying on those folks can keep you out of trouble if facts turn out to be less than accurate.
(The law can get squishy here, so it’s always wise to check the rules.)
Even if the law itself isn’t providing you with a shield, interviewing these folks can be better than relying on witnesses or participants when it comes to the big-picture items. Regular folks get rattled when a shooting occurs or a car slams into a wall in front of them. They’re pumping adrenaline and freaking out, so their version of reality isn’t as solid as a crime scene investigator who has seen all this before. Even more, officials tend to have more of the entire picture in hand before they speak, which is beneficial to you as you try to make sense of this.
(Again, this doesn’t mean you won’t get screwed over by the officials at some level, especially if they’re hiding something. However, you can REALLY get screwed over if a regular citizen decides to accuse someone of murder on live air. Yes, that actually happened…)
Engage in empathy during interviews with those involved: Trying to interview someone who is the victim of a shooting, a bystander/would-be victim of a shooting or those who are essentially collateral damage (family, friends etc. of a victim) is a ridiculously difficult proposition.
It can feel ugly and vulture-esque to bother people who just went through a chaotic and traumatic event. In some cases, a reporter’s desire to get the story can get them to push sources for information and exacerbate the trauma. Some publications have lousy editors who lean on reporters to dig into the situation with grace and dignity of frisking a dead body for valuables.
I have had a number of interviews in which I’ve had to approach a family member or friend of someone who just died or was injured in a terrible way. In one case, it was the family of a 13-year-old boy who was accidentally shot by his best friend. In another case, it was the mother of a 17-year-old girl who died after slamming her car into a tree while drunken driving. The first family wanted nothing to do with me; the second talked to me at length. Neither was a pleasant experience.
Empathy and caution go a long way to making this less painful for everyone involved. I tell my students that we’re like waiters at a fancy cocktail party who walk around with hors d’oeuvres on a tray: We offer people something and if they don’t want it, we walk away quickly and politely.
The best example of how to think about this came from Kelly Furnas, a professor of journalism, who was advising student media at Virginia Tech during the 2007 campus shooting. More than 30 people died during an attack in which a student opened fire on campus. Furnas and his staff at the Collegiate Times had to not only cover the story, but eventually write obituaries for each of the fallen.
A quote he gave me years ago still sticks with me:
“The students I talked to were terrified of the fact that they would need to call these families and I said, ‘You don’t assume that these families don’t want to talk.’ That’s a very important thing to these families to tell the story of their son’s or daughter’s lives. That’s a very important thing. A lot of people not only want to do it, but expect to do it.”
He said the students were told to do their best and just give people a chance to speak. If they were outraged by the reporter’s questions, the reporter was to apologize and walk away.
In the end, however, very few people rejected the request for an interview, he said.
Don’t bail out on your duty to report because you are afraid of what people might say. Give them the chance to say no before you do it for them.
Primary Writing Advice
The duty to report is not the same as the duty to publish: When you are working against the clock, trying to break news and pushing back against competitors and social media folks, it can feel like the weight of the world is on you to get SOMETHING out there.
In the olden days, as in before everyone could be online in 3 seconds after they saw something, we could hang on for a bit before having to produce content for public consumption. Broadcasters got the 5, 6 and 10 p.m. newscasts to inform folks. Print journalists could wait until press time to get the best version of reality, or update things between editions.
Today, you are live 24-7, so it can feel like you’re always under pressure to convert whatever you gathered into something for the public.
In the case of chaos, you need to balance that urge against your journalistic training to be accurate above all else. Fast and wrong isn’t doing anyone any good.
If you don’t have something you feel is accurate, supported and clear, don’t pump it out there and figure you’ll fix it later. You can always publish something later. Once you toss something out there, you can never really get it back.
Additional Writing Advice
Play it straight: You are likely living through an emotionally turbulent situation, one unlike anything you’ve faced to this point in your career. Your emotions can run the gamut of fear and anxiety to the sense that you’re about to write the Greatest Piece of Journalism Ever ™ so it’s time to shine.
There’s a reason we teach you the Driver’s Ed Rules of Journalism, namely so that when faced with something completely out of the ordinary, you can rely on your training to do things right. This is one of those times, so don’t overdo anything.
Tell the people what happened and why they care in the most direct way possible. It’s what good pros do:
A 15-year-old opened fire at his Michigan high school Tuesday, killing at least three people and wounding eight others, authorities said, in what appears to be the deadliest episode of on-campus violence in more than 18 months.
Don’t start slathering on adverbs. Don’t hype it with opinions. Don’t turn this into a narrative lead that shifts the focus toward “dig my writing” and away from what happened.
Tell people what happened in the most direct and clear way possible, based on what you can prove.
Speaking of which…
Stick to the facts: In the film “And the Band Played On,” researchers at the CDC are trying to pinpoint the cause of a strange malady that is killing primarily gay men. Their quest to identify the AIDS virus as well as its cause and spread had the virus hunters relying on a simple mantra: “What do we think? What do we know? What can we prove?” Unless they could hit the “prove” stage, they refused to state something publicly with certainty.
This approach is a good one for anyone covering chaos, especially something that continues to unfold, like an active shooter situation.
If you can stick to the facts and the material provided to you from reliable sources, you can keep your readers informed and avoid spreading misinformation. If you don’t know how many people were shot, don’t guess. Don’t rely on terms like “arguably” to cover over your limited knowledge, saying things like “This is arguably the worst shooting in U.S. history.”
Say only what you can prove at the time, and that also means taking care with how you are stating something.
For example, police can say something like, “The shooter is no longer a threat.”
OK, does that mean he’s been captured? He was killed? He ran out of bullets? Also are we sure the shooter is a “he?” (Make sure in the reporting phase to check these things, as well as other details before publishing.)
Good work on the front end and sticking to what you know on the back end can lead to simple statements like: “Police Chief John Smith said the shooter, a 15-year-old male student at the school, is ‘no longer a threat.’”
Attribute everything you can: One of the key things you should note in the Washington Post lead was the attribution. Even though “authorities said” is vague, the rest of the story was able to fill in specifically who those authorities are and why we should trust them.
I always try to make the point that attributions are like anchor points when you’re climbing a rock formation: You might not need all of them, but it’s better to have them and not need them than need them and not have them. I also note that I’ve never met anyone who has been fired or sued for over-attributing, but more than a few people have ended up on the short end of the stick for under attributing.
When you are writing a story like this, it’s important to look at each statement you type and ask, “Says who?” If the answer is a specific person, include that in the attribution (County Coroner Jill Smith, Police Chief Doug Jones, Superintendent Raul Allegre etc.). If the information is more general, as in you got the same story from multiple people or documents, make that clear as well (Several police officers said the hallway was littered with spent shell casings from an AR-15; Court documents state Principal Helen Carter repeatedly filed reports with the district on this issue; An email chain between the boy’s parents and teachers show that while school officials were worried about his behavior, the parents said ‘Guns are part of his life, so back off.’”)
If you DON’T have a specific source or collective source, where did you get this stuff and how sure are you that it’s right? That’s where people usually screw up, because they assume they know more than they do and they fail to look it up or find a source worthy of attribution.
If you can’t find a source worthy of an attribution, wait until you can before you publish it.
Have someone else read it before it goes out: After you read and reread and reread something again, you can find yourself blind to your work. You also probably cut and pasted a half-dozen things in a half-dozen spots and then undid at least half of that. By the time you think you’re done, you lack any sense of what is actually in there and what you SWEAR you wrote instead.
A fresh set of eyes are a godsend in this kind of situation.
An editor or a colleague who hasn’t read this before will give you a good chance of catching things like if you swapped the name of a victim and the shooter or if you skipped a first reference to a source. It’s something worth doing because you want to make sure you’re right.
My personal stupid thing was that I always got the day wrong for every story I did. For reasons past my understanding, I always wrote that something happened Monday. Didn’t matter what day, week, month or year something happened, I always made it a Monday.
I caught a lot of those on second or third reads, but it was usually up to my editor or a colleague to ask, “Are you sure this happened on Monday?”
Again, you can’t beat a fresh set of eyes.
Never assume you’re done reporting: The thing about chaos is that it doesn’t operate on a schedule. It doesn’t show up as expected or finish up neatly at the end of an hour, like a TV crime drama. You have to make sure you’re frequently checking in to see what’s going on and if you’re still telling people the most accurate and up-to-date information.
Whatever was right as rain at 9 a.m. is completely wrong at 2 p.m.
The arrest that happened last night turned out to be a case of mistaken identity the next morning.
An early body count ends up being much larger or smaller than once was thought.
Assumptions become facts or become worthless as police continue to investigate.
I remember once following up on a story for a fellow reporter who had filed and gone home after her shift was done. The story was about a toddler clinging to life after falling into a creek. The whole story was about hope and prayer and this boy’s will to live. She was a great reporter and a great writer and this was one of those amazing stories she always told.
My job was “just to make sure” if something changed, so about 10:30 p.m., I called the hospital to get an update that might or might not make the paper.
The PR person was kind of half talking to me and half talking to someone nearby when I heard her say, “So… We can tell him then?”
The kid died five minutes earlier when they took him off life support.
I asked about four really bad questions, that ended up having this woman shouting at me something like, “Everything possible was done to save this child’s life!” (which sounds a lot better in print without the anger in her voice). As she’s talking/yelling, I wrote “KID DIED” on a legal pad and held it up for my editor who was across the room.
He saw it and came rushing over as I finished the interview.
“Oh shit,” he told me. “You have four minutes to rewrite the story.”
Long story short, it got done and we got it subbed in for the first edition of the paper. I didn’t get a byline, but I got a hell of an experience and a valuable lesson: Chaos doesn’t operate on your schedule. Make sure you’re constantly checking in.
Engage in self-care activities: One of the easiest things to forget when you’re in the middle of a chaotic event is that you are human and that things do affect you. The job allows you a kind of shield against feeling things or coming to grips with what you’re witnessing at the time.
Don’t kid yourself. You’re taking a beating, whether you know it or not, and you need to heal yourself a bit.
The truth is, you will see things that will gag a maggot, horrors that will haunt you for years and truly inexplicable acts that have you asking “Why?” more times than a 4-year-old after ingesting a pound of sugar. Those things DO leave a scar, whether you want them to or not. They’re there, whether you realize it or not.
You will need to do some serious self-care activities to keep from sustaining serious damage.
This can be simple decompression things like clearing your mind or coming to grips with things you’ve seen or written. It can be talking through your feelings and emotions with colleagues or looking for things that can help you reset your mind and body.
These things can also include therapy or professional help. Acknowledging and coping with what your work has done to you does not make you weak or soft.
It makes you a human being who wants to take care of their own needs before they can take care of their audience’s.