Hometown Catastrophe

Dart Center Executive Director Bruce Shapiro offers advice to journalists.

It takes a a single phone call, a single alert on a police scanner, a single wire-service bulletin bearing word of catastrophe to upend the well-ordered chaos of a newsroom.

In Minneapolis last week, it was the interstate highway collapse. Suddenly local print and broadcast journalists tore up their plans for the coming week, and threw themselves at a horrific scene whose basic facts were still far from clear.

It was the same, just a few months ago, for reporters in Virginia. Though the incident itself was different — and the body count thankfully lower — the Minneapolis bridge collapse recalls the Virginia Tech shootings and the intense pressures on hometown journalists to get the story right; the shocking and urgent accounts of survivors and witnesses; the almost instant deluge of national news teams; and the certainty that this single event would dominate the lives of local journalists — and their community — for weeks, months or longer.

Two months after the Virginia Tech shootings, some 60 reporters and editors who'd covered that story gatheredbat the invitation of the Virginia Press Association to talk privately about their coverage.

In workshops in Roanoke and in Richmond facilitated by the Dart Center, these journalists discussed what went right and what went badly, their ethical quandaries and news choices. And they agreed to go on-the-record about lessons learned from Virginia Tech — lessons that would apply not just to another university shooting but to any other large-scale catastrophe.

A few of their lessons:

Send a message from the top: Take care of yourself. On a large-scale breaking news story it makes a difference when top a newsroom leader — an editor or news director — reminds journalists of the need for sleep, breaks, and other self-care steps. This isn't just a matter of occupational health but of preserving news judgement and the capacity to stay on the story for the long haul.

Have a trusted editor on the scene. The Richmond Times-Dispatch sent a highly-regarded desk editor to join its reporters on the ground at Virginia Tech. The result: better communication, and a greater willingness by editors back in Richmond to hear reporters' concerns.

Trust your news judgement and ethics, and be strong enough to say no. Some wire-service editors and broadcast producers far from the Virginia Tech campus demanded intrusive or exploitative interviews. Whatever the competitive national media may be doing, remember that you must retain the trust of your local community.

Plan ahead: Have a big-story coverage strategy. Reporters at both the Richmond Times-Dispatch and Roanoke Times agreed that it would have made a difference — on everything from communications to deployment of reporters — for their newsrooms to have prepared for being in the middle of a community catastrophe and a national story.

Don't chase every detail. Once the national press lands, rumors and false leads abound. Local news teams can and should make their coverage decisions and stick to them.

Make non-traditional assignments. Remember that an education reporter, a business journalist, and an arts writer can bring a fresh eye and perspective to a critical breaking story. A catastrophe is by nature an unconventional event; don't be trapped by conventional beats and expectations.

You are part of this story: Don't forget what it feels like. For local journalists, an event like the Virginia Tech shootings inevitably resonates with family, friends and neighbors. Many reporters in Virginia described their embarrassment and shame at intrusive and unethical national reporters. Remembering those feelings will ensure more responsible coverage of victims and survivors in day-to-day news as well as large-scale events.