First Responders

Have you ever been first to arrive at the scene of a tragedy? Have you ever sent a reporter or photographer to a disaster scene without thinking through the consequences?

Have you ever been first to arrive at the scene of a tragedy? Have you ever sent a reporter or photographer to a disaster scene without thinking through the consequences?

You are not the only one.

More and more law enforcement and emergency response agencies worldwide consider journalists to be among the first responders to tragedies and acts of violence, including crime, natural disasters, major accidents and terrorist attacks. In the United States, for example, those agencies range from the Los Angeles Police Department to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

It is important that journalists know what to do, both to prevent further harm to victims or themselves. It's also important that supervising editors consider the welfare of those who work for them. This Dart Center guide provides some simple tips on how to handle such coverage.

The victim you cover

" … A man began yelling at me, 'Now is not the time for interviews. Don't you people have anything better to do?'...Everyone seemed to be in shock -- their eyes glazed over. Silent tears rolled down some people's cheeks, while others sobbed uncontrollably. I knew I needed more interviews, but I felt frozen and wasn't sure what to do next. I tried to draw on lessons I had learn in journalism class, or in my prior reporting experience, but nothing seemed to provide me with answers. I had never felt so alone as at that moment...There were a million stories to tell."
Eileen Lehpamer, free-lance reporter, WINS-AM radio, New York
(Covering Catastrophe: Broadcast Journalist report September 11.)

Most victims or victims’ relatives face a wall of grief in the aftermath of a death or disaster. The wall blocks them from seeing beyond what has just disturbed their lives. They don’t see into the past or future; they see the present and feel the pain of the moment. Then the reporter approaches them and violates their grieving space.

What you should do:

  • Compose yourself before approaching a victim. Stay calm and speak in a low tone. Being tense and out of breath could agitate the victim further.
  • Realize that victims may be in shock or severely injured when you first approach them. Calmly introduce yourself and then ask whether they need any medical help. If they do, seek medical help immediately.
  • If you judge that it's OK to proceed, ask if they would be willing to answer a few questions. If the victim says no, respect that. If they are able and ready to talk, explain that you're doing a story on what happened and how the information might be used.
  • It's OK to say, "I'm sorry for what happened to you today."
  • Do not be pushy, aggressive or accusatory in any way. Keep it to facts and thoughts rather than emotions or feelings. NEVER ask, "How do you feel?" Ask, for example, "What happened?" "How did you experience that?" or "What did you see/hear next?"
  • Don't react harshly if someone responds harshly to you. (Note that a camera can sometimes prompt a particularly sharp response.) Just say, "Again, I'm sorry for what has happened to you," give the person your business card and say you'd be grateful if he or she would contact you later. Then walk away.
  • If the victim doesn't call you, consider following up with a phone call the next day. But again, be prepared to respect "No" as the answer. If you decide to approach family members or friends of the victim or survivor, do that with care, respect and honesty.
  • Try not to violate someone's private grieving, intrude upon a person's private property, or disturb victims when they are clearly grieving. Be patient, let a victim make eye contact with you before making an approach.
  • Details are important to any story, but determine whether gory particulars, such as identification of body parts, are pertinent, or merely sensationalizing an event.
  • Once you have completed your interview, politely ask whether it's OK to call again later to verify any facts or unclear quotes, and make a note of the person's contact details. If you borrow photos, tell the victim that you will return them promptly and ask when is the best time to do that. Then say, "Thank you" and ask whether the victim needs any help or you need to notify someone for him or her.
  • If the victim seems frightened or severely injured, stay with him or her until help arrives. (It is not your role, however, to act as the emergency responder unless someone's life is in danger.)

You, the journalist

"Remember, not only is no story worth a reporter's life, but a dead reporter isn't going to report anything."
Howard A. Tyner, Editorial VP, Tribune Co. publishing division

First of all, make sure you're safe. However tempting, don't take risks that might endanger either your own safety or your ability to do your job. And remember that while it can sometimes difficult to witness and not help, it's not your role to act as professional responder unless someone's life is in danger.

What you should do:

  • When first arriving at the scene, survey the surroundings to determine whether:
    • The perpetrator(s) is still in the area. (In the case of a domestic dispute or violence involving a large number of people, you could become a target.)
    • A threat of violence continues or anything dangerous is near. (For example, concrete dangling from a building, mines or unexploded devices.)
    • An area is still contaminated, in the event of a biological attack. Watch for any discolored water, blood or suspicious substances, and avoid contact with them.
    • A secondary device or person could be targeting you and others. In the case of a terrorist attack or suicide bombing, be aware that the terrorists sometimes target the first responders and media with the secondary bomb. If you notice a potentially dangerous situation, leave the area immediately. (Respect the instructions of law enforcement officials and first responders.)
  • Carry water, suntan lotion, rain gear, boots, hat, extra batteries or any other gear necessary to your job, especially if you're a law enforcement reporter or general assignment photographer. You may be at the scene for an extended period of time.
  • If you witnessed a particularly troubling scene, be sure to talk with a trusted listener once you have completed your job. Remember, it's OK to tear up or be more concerned about you or your family's safety after you've witnessed a tragedy or trauma.
  • If you have recurring nightmares, become severely depressed or are consistently withdrawn from family or friends after prolonged exposure to trauma, seek counseling from a professional.

You, the supervisor

"It … is important that you take care of yourself. And that we take care of each other."
Henry Freeman, editor, The Journal News, White Plains, N.Y.

Your first thought should be to value your staff members' welfare and potentially their lives over the story itself, especially in the coverage of a mass tragedy or disaster. Your staff members will need good, kind and clear management and team support. Small gestures and kindness from management and colleagues can make a big difference when someone's feeling raw from responding to the scene of a tragedy.

What you should do:

  • When sending journalists to a scene of a tragedy, advise them to take care of themselves and not to take any unnecessary risks. The risks can be emotional as well as physical. (For journalists or support colleagues going on assignment in a conflict zone, it's essential to provide proper training for working in hostile environments.)
  • Be cautious about sending a staff member to cover a story of violence or tragedy if the person or a family member has suffered a recent or similar tragedy, or might be vulnerable for other reasons. This could exacerbate the staff member's reaction or suffering.
  • If you know that your staff members will be in a scene for a prolonged period of time, remind them to take water, suntan lotion and possibly a hat (or any necessary safety gear). If they don't have the necessary items, send someone to bring it to them.
  • Ask the assigned staff members to check back with you at a certain point or time. That way, you can assess the situation and your staff member's safety. You also may want to ask whether they need to return to the newsroom or need relief. (If you have not heard from a staff member after a reasonable time, you might want to send someone else to check on him or her, or call a law enforcement officer to check on the staff member's safety.)
  • Once the person has returned, show concern by asking, "How are you doing?" It's OK to show human caring for your staff member. After you have received a positive reply, then you can discuss the story or photos/video. If you receive a negative response, ask questions such as "Is there anything I can do for you?" or "What happened?" Then LISTEN. This debriefing may help your staff member tremendously.
  • Watch for signs that a colleague has been particularly affected by a tragedy or by prolonged exposure to trauma. Tiredness, irritability, unreasonable anger, turning up uncharacteristically late for work, or a change of personality can be among the signs. Don't react harshly if you notice these things. Simply listen again and convey your care for the person's welfare. If the symptoms don't improve, you may want to advise the staff member to consider professional help. (In cases of a disaster or major tragedy, management should make counseling available as soon as possible.)
  • Less experienced reporters may be particularly affected by working on their first tragedy or by covering the crime or court beat for a longer period. Be sure that you're particularly sensitive to them and their needs during these times. As for the older and more experienced journalists in your newsroom, be aware that a career of covering trauma can cause deeper problems (e.g. of numbing out, of alcohol abuse, of relationship strain).
  • Make sure professional and confidential counseling is available in the background for those who wish to use it.