When tragedy strikes: Covering mass shootings

How much coverage to give killers in mass shootings dominated a discussion at the Excellence in Journalism 2018 in Baltimore. And journalists were warned not to speculate about motives, although there is always a tendency to want to do just that.

Participants had covered such shootings in their communities. They were Tim Scheld, director of news and programming at WCBS radio in New York, who covered the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012; Kristen Hussey, a Connecticut freelancer, who also covered Sandy Hook; and Terence Shepherd, the news director at WLRN News, the public radio station in Miami, who covered the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shootings in Parkland, Florida, last February.

Andrew Seaman, winner of the Wells Memorial Key Award later in the conference for his work as the ethics chair for the Society of Professional Journalists, told the group since he lived near the Parkland school, he covered the shooting himself rather than try to get another staffer there. He advised not to use images of killers or use their names repeatedly, because oftentimes they want to be famous.

“Be conscious of how you use photos of a shooter,” Seaman said. Scheld agreed and also added: “Don’t speculate about the motive.”

Scheld said a number of studies have shown some of these assailants committed the crime to become notorious, and there is a real fear that the reason behind some of these shootings is to be able to take over the media spotlight for a significant period of time.

In the Sandy Hook shootings, the perpetrator fatally shot his mother before murdering 20 students and six staff members and later committing suicide.

Hussey raised a question of how often the shooter’s name is used, and how deeply a reporter should delve into their lives. She also urged that situations not be simplified. “Every community is different and nuanced differently,” she said.

A member of the audience spoke about covering a school board meeting when a shooting occurred outside the meeting room. She stepped outside to see what was happening and her first inclination was to call 911. Then, she thought maybe she should let her supervisor know. She said she wondered which was the right call.

She was advised by several panelists to make the human response and call 911 first if she felt she should.

Whenever covering a situation where the perpetrator is around, “don’t get involved with an active shooter,” Seaman said.

(A contribution in this report came from the EIJ18 website.)

In other sessions:

A session on the #MeToo Movement made clear that no detail is too small to check carefully in checking sexual assault and harassment allegations. The panel also urged reporters to show empathy to victims to gain trust.

Panelists were Avi Kumin, a lawyer of Katz, Marshall & Banks, the firm that assisted Christine Blasey Ford with her testimony against U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh; Anna North, a reporter at Vox; and Amy Brittain, a Washington Post writer who helped cover the allegations against CBS News anchor Charlie Rose. The moderator was Debra Adams Simmons, executive editor, Culture, of National Geographic.

North observed that people who work in low-wage industries are particularly vulnerable to harassment but often don’t report it to keep their jobs.

“There are barriers to women of color and disadvantaged women being believed,” she said.

She gave as an example, lawyer Anita Hill, who claimed allegations of sexual harassment against Clarence Thomas, who was nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1991. As a woman of color, “it affects how she was heard,” North said.

A session on “Surviving the Unthinkable” featured Triffon Alatzas, publisher of the Baltimore Sun Co., which includes the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, where five members of the staff died at the hands of an area resident. Alatzas said the shooter had a grudge going back to 2011 and had been unsuccessful in suing for defamation.

“It was the darkest day in our company and one of the darkest days in American journalism,” he said.

The company has given the employees as much time as they needed to recover from the newsroom shooting, he said. In answer to a question from the audience, he said none of the editorial employees at the Gazette had left since the June shooting, but a few on the advertising side had opted to depart.

“I marvel at what they have done. The people are dedicated,” he said.

ETSPJ alternate delegate, Society of Professional Journalists, 2018 Excellence in Journalism Conference

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