Reporters at Risk Are No Longer Alone: Tips on Covering Mass Shootings

“Reporting on mass shootings and other large-scale attacks and killings tests the skill of reporters and the judgment of news organizations,” writes Dart Center Executive Director Bruce Shapiro, in a recent issue of Walkley magazine. “Part of the challenge goes to our craft: How to accurately depict a mass shooting and its aftermath in a normally safe venue? Part of the challenge is to our ethics: What to say about a perpetrator, how to approach witnesses and survivors and family members, how much explicit detail and imagery to include in news reports? And part of the challenge is emotional: How can journalists and news organizations protect themselves from psychological injury when covering unspeakable horror?”

According to Shapiro, this is some of what we've learned from covering mass shootings worldwide (For the full article, click here).

  • Journalists are, on the whole, a resilient tribe. Like firefighters and other first responders, we rush toward danger and crises with purpose and skill. But psychological injury is also real –anywhere from 5 to 15 per cent of non-combat journalists describe changes in themselves consistent with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  • Stay connected to your colleagues – peer support matters. The journalists at greatest risk following any highly traumatic assignment are those isolated from their colleagues. Basic trauma awareness and a culture of peer support help both individual journalists and news organizations contend with the most challenging assignments.(Australia’s ABC is a pioneer in peer trauma support.)
  • Ethics matter. Initial evidence from a study in Norway of young reporters who covered the Utoya shootings suggests that those experiencing the most emotional distress months after the event were those who felt pressed into ethical compromises in their handling of victims or other aspects of the story.
  • Good management matters. A study by psychologists at the University of Tulsa found that among journalists covering highly distressing events, having newsroom management perceived as chaotic or hostile was as great a risk of psychological injury as the traumatic events themselves. Journalists who feel supported by their editors and producers are less likely to experience debilitating psychological injury.
  • Watchful waiting. If you or a colleague cover a distressing mass shooting, don’t presume that PTSD or other problems are inevitable, but do look for changes that seem to linger. If difficulties go on for a month or more, consider talking to a qualified counsellor or therapist specialising in trauma.
  • Pace your workload. Trauma is cumulative, and too steady a diet of horror can evoke profound psychological responses. As with soldiers whose risk of PTSD increases with frequent deployments to combat zones, journalists rushing from one traumatic assignment to another face increased danger of psychological injury.
  • Treat survivors humanely. As Dave Cullen, who covered the Columbine shootings for and then spent 10 years writing a book on the incident, puts it: "A good rule is to be ready to treat them the way you would treat a friend. Most of them want to talk, so it’s fine to ask questions about the tragedy. Just be aware they may break down unexpectedly at any time. When survivors have a bad reaction, give them a moment. Step out of the interview and react like a good Samaritan or a friend." Respectful treatment of people will lead to richer interviews and trusting longterm access as the story unfolds.
  • Learn from your colleagues. The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma has tip sheets and interviews capturing the lessons learned from past mass shootings worldwide for journalists, photographers, newsroom managers and teachers.