5 Ways News Reporters Should Cover Tragic Events

A photo of a family putting flowers and a cross at a crime scene
Reporters must remember to have compassion for the people at the scene of a tragedy. Photo © Joe Raedle / Getty Images

From the Columbine school massacre to the Charleston church shootings, tragic killings seem to be more common than ever. Most reporters will have to cover a senseless event like this at some point in their career.

These events don't have to be the equal of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks to change local communities forever. Reporters covering such tragedies will be tested in ways, both personal and professional, that will have a lasting impact on their career.

Stay Professional While Reporting the Facts

It can be difficult for news reporters to respond to mass violence in their own city. They will worry about the safety of friends and family, just like anyone else.

But there comes a point that reporters have to do their jobs, just like police, firefighters, and rescuers. The difference is, those professions usually train workers on crisis management. Journalists have to figure it out on their own while facing enormous deadline pressure to get the story.

Journalists should remind themselves of the importance of their work during these situations. There will be time to grieve, but at the moment, your city is counting on you.

Be Wary of Rumors and Speculation

It won't be long after tragedy strikes for people to start spreading rumors, lies, and other misinformation. Citizen journalism will run the spectrum from accurate to purposely biased and much of it will appear on the Internet or through social media.

Resist the urge to report any of it until you check for accuracy. You may see the same death toll number from five sources on social media, but they may be quoting each other. Until you get a number from law enforcement, it's best not to let someone else do the tabulations for you.

You'll also see immediate speculation on why the crime happened and who did it.

Every mass shooting isn't always an act of terrorism. Not every shooter is part of a conspiracy. Wait for someone to tell you what's really going on, even if that means waiting for a news conference. Don't let your rush to be first with information sink your story with misinformation.

Show Compassion for Everyone Involved

A typical mass shooting scenario usually has a gunman opening fire in a public place and eventually getting killed himself, either by his own hand or by police. Knowing the gunman is dead provides a tiny bit of comfort for a shell-shocked community.

The public's attention will turn to the gunman's family. For instance, if the shooter was young, people will want to know if his parents knew anything that could have stopped the bloodshed. But as we've seen in most cases, the family is just as stunned and horrified as anyone else and now has to live with the guilt of what a loved one has done. A reporter should remember that before sticking a microphone in their faces.

A reporter who's frustrated that information isn't coming quickly from police should also remember the burdens that investigators face. They have to see the bodies. They have to tell victims' families about what happened.

They have to try to make sense of a senseless act of violence. Appeasing a reporter's demands may not be a priority.

Avoid Getting Caught Up in the Blame Game

It's only natural for a community to make the transition from shock to grief to anger once the news of a tragedy sets in. That anger will result in a desire to blame someone for what happened.

If it's a school shooting, then someone will say school officials should have done more to protect students on campus. If it's a bomb at an outdoor event, then police should have provided tighter security. It's likely that someone will eventually blame the media for a multitude of issues.

There will be plenty of time to ask tough reporter questions about what happened and whether it could have been stopped before people were injured or killed. Give investigators reasonable time to handle the situation and gather information that will answer their own questions, which are likely the same as yours.

Give Yourself Time to Cope with the Crisis

It's okay for news reporters to have the same emotions as anyone else. We're supposed to be human and not Superman or Superwoman. Learning how to handle professional and personal stress will be a lasting skill any reporter needs to learn.

There will probably be a point when you wish the story would simply go away so you could get back to your normal routine of covering city council meetings and ribbon cuttings. You've undoubtedly had to work long hours covering the saddest story of your career.

Eat right, get sleep and talk to your colleagues in the newsroom about your feelings. It's not a sign of weakness or that you're not tough enough to make it in the news business. It shows you care about people and your city, which are admirable qualities for any journalist.