The school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut is one of those horrible, senseless tragedies that has shocked the nation. Twenty-eight people killed, 20 of them children, when a gunman opened fire inside the Sandy Hook Elementary School. This type of story is one of the most difficult kinds to cover. There are several factors that come in to play that will impact the overall coverage, how the information is presented and how that will shape the way this story is presented to the public.
Being First and Being Right
This is the tug-of-war news outlets must face on a daily basis. Is it better to be first with a big story even if some of your information may be shaky? Or is it better to hold off, take the extra time to double-check what you have even if that means being one of the last to report it? Certainly, no outlet wants to be wrong, but some are more fast and loose when it comes with the truth.
From early in the morning, when the news first broke from Newton, the race was on: Who will be first to report it? The first on the scene? The first with eyewitness reports or confirmation of the number of dead? When it comes to getting accurate information quickly, a story like the Newtown shooting is especially difficult. In the heat of the moment, stumbles and mistakes are inevitable but every effort needs to be made to avoid them.
We saw that initially with the reports of the number killed and injured. For the first few hours, this number fluctuated wildly depending on which news outlet you listened to. A more egregious example was the revelation of the killer’s identity. Initially, Adam Lanza’s brother was erroneously identified as the gunman. Law enforcement officials did their best to fix this mistake quickly, but the damage was done. Even when the correct name was revealed, journalists and the public alike took to social media and publicly vilified completely innocent people who just happened to share Lanza’s name.
Each network and television station has its own philosophy, its own checks and balances when it comes to confirming information before making it public. But sacrificing accuracy just to be first is not worth it. In the end it can create more confusion, spread more pain and damage reputations. Take a minute, double-check your information, and get it right even if that means you won’t be first.
The competition for information in Newtown is fierce. This is a national story. Cable and network news organizations have descended with their anchors broadcasting live from the scene. It has also drawn international attention. And its geographic location means that local news stations from not only Hartford, but New York, Boston and other cities have converged on the scene. The public park in Newtown has turned into the type of media encampment you usually see at political conventions or sporting events.
Law enforcement officials have done a good job of holding regular news briefings and keeping journalists informed. But, understandably, they have also been careful about the information they release. This environment creates a “news vacuum” as dozens of journalists try to uncover information, sometimes crossing the line of good taste and decency. Already the Connecticut State Police has assigned a trooper to each family in order to protect their privacy from over-zealous reporters.
Journalists must be aggressive and not limit themselves to reporting only the “official” information handed to them by police. But they need to be smart in how they do it and sensitive to the people torn apart by this tragedy. People don’t need to see a mother sobbing at the loss of her child just so some station can slap a banner on it calling it “exclusive”. This serves no purpose and should be off-limits.
The Human Factor
Finally, there is the human toll a story like this will take on the dedicated news professionals who are covering it. Journalists work very hard to remove their personal feelings from the equation while covering a story. But it is nearly impossible for any feeling human being to remain detached while covering a story like the Newtown shooting. It will be most difficult for the reporters and field crews on the scene. They are the ones who will have to talk to witnesses and family members. There is no escape from them. They are literally in the middle of the story. They will also be working long hours with little rest. It will hit them the hardest.
Managers and producers back in the newsrooms need to keep this in mind. Their crews in the field are under tremendous strain. Pushing them too hard will not improve your coverage and will only lead to mistakes. A story of this magnitude is not the time to be thinking of the bottom line. Assign extra staff to cover it and give your people in the field a chance to step back from covering the story and take some time for themselves.
The shooting in Newtown will be on the front pages and on our TV’s for many days to come. Hopefully some good can come out of such a tremendous tragedy, specifically a national dialogue about gun control and mental health care. Journalists will play an important role in this conversation, but it is equally important that they use all of their skill and experience and do their jobs responsibly, carefully and with sensitivity.