Covering School Shootings

At a time like this, your students may look to you as a pseudo-parent. Hold yourself together. Your calm, collected demeanor will go a long way toward your students remaining calm and collected.

Before doing anything else, contact loved ones. Between the time we heard the police scanner to the time I ran out the door with students, I made two calls. One was to my oldest son, who was an NIU senior living in Neptune Hall, adjacent to Cole. Thankfully, he was on his way to Naperville to see his fiancé. And I called my wife, to tell her what little I knew about what was happening, and that I was OK. Those calls took two minutes, but they saved my family and me a world of worry.

Resist the urge to take charge. Advisers with newsroom experience – and especially those who have been editors – may act instinctively at first. Check yourself. Quickly find that line between teaching / role modeling and supervising, and stay on the role modeling side.

Many student journalists will run to the story, and receive glory for that. A few will disappear. Don’t hold those few in judgment. They’re young adults; some will not be able to handle this. In fact, this may be an epiphany for some who decide journalism is not for them.

Find a short time or two to pull the news staff aside for decompression. Give them a chance to be students and friends – not just journalists. On the day after the shootings, we cleared everyone out of the newsroom, went to a room with no outside journalists or ringing phones, and just asked everyone how they were doing. It’s OK to cry, to hug, to talk about anything.

We also went to a restaurant and had dinner together one night that first weekend. It was an opportunity to be normal for a while.

Pay attention to everyone, not just those who are on the front lines of reporting. Photo editors, copy editors, designers may think they have no right to experience emotional troubles or PTSD symptoms. Make it clear to everyone that it’s OK, and normal.

After several days, when you’re not running on adrenaline anymore, you as the adviser will have times when you feel overwhelmed and emotionally exhausted. Take care of yourself. Know your support systems and use them. For me, that was my faith community, Northern Star alumni and adviser friends at other college newspapers. If they aren’t reaching out to you, reach out to them.

Write about it. Chances are, you’re an adviser because you’re a good journalist. But you don’t have a creative outlet in your student paper. At the end of each day, I processed my thoughts and emotions by writing an e-mail to our alumni group and to the College Media Advisers list. They appreciated the updates, but it helped me even more.

Expect a letdown in the coming weeks. The NIU tragedy happened Feb. 14. Nothing the paper covered the remainder of the semester seemed very important or urgent. As advisers, it’s often our job to challenge the students, to push them if things get a little lax. My approach became more measured than it otherwise would be. After what the students had been through, they needed a less-intense atmosphere as the term wound down. So did I.

Also – and true to what Dart told us to expect – some of our student journalists began experiencing PTSD symptoms weeks or even months after the shootings. The remainder of the school year for me became more about taking care of kids than challenging them.

Handling outside media

Before you even know fully what’s happening, the world is watching you and hanging on your every word. You are everyone’s story of the day. The most surreal moment for me was walking into the editor’s office as he was talking on the phone, then hearing his voice come out the newsroom TV on CNN. In interviews: Say what you know and what you saw. Don’t speculate. Don’t generalize.

Especially during those chaotic first couple of days, designate a couple of student editors to return media calls, rather than everyone returning them.

If space allows – and it did for us – open your newsroom to outside reporters looking for a place to write and file. Not only does this help your professional colleagues, it also allows the sharing of information. We also reluctantly accommodated reporters who wanted stories about us.

But … monitor closely, especially TV crews. At one point on the day after our tragedy, you couldn’t walk three feet in our newsroom without bumping into a camera crew. I was close to announcing that all outside media had to leave for a while, but I think they realized it, too, and gently backed off.

Get thee behind me, CNN. Beware the ego trip from appearing on national TV or being quoted in national newspapers. Realize that some students may not handle this well and may start feeding off the publicity. Gently tell them to cut way back on the number of interviews they are giving.

And be glad when the circus moves on to the next town.

Realize that, for a few days, there will be a big difference between the public reception of local media vs. out-of-town media. They love you and, at best, tolerate the outsiders. And then be ready for life to get back to normal fairly quickly in a few days.


Suggest that the editor in chief designate several point people: one for distilling what the reporters are coming back with; one for planning the paper; and another for updating the Web site.

If you’re a daily paper, consider dropping all advertising for the next day’s issue. If not that, be especially sensitive about what’s used and where.

Accuracy above all. The world is not only watching, it’s stealing your stories. They’d better be accurate. This is make-or-break time for your paper’s credibility.

Don’t let AP become your photo editor. Despite the external pressure to deliver images, take a few minutes and apply ethical standards to what you’re going to show the world. Our students did a very good job with this.

A fantastic piece of advice we received from Virginia Tech: Be careful about signing away rights to your photos. We had people on our doorstep and on the phone the morning after, offering to market our photos if we’d sign over exclusive rights. We went with AP, because we’re members, and we stipulated free use for student media.

In the days and weeks to follow

Watch for signs of event fatigue. Short tempers. Sarcastic answers to TV reporters. Squabbling. Facebook flaming. We saw it all. When needed, pull aside a student or two, ask how they’re doing and tell them what you’re seeing.

A few weeks after, host a session for area media who covered the tragedy. We invited area newspapers to a Dart Center session with Bruce Shapiro and Deb Nelson. It was an opportunity they would not have otherwise had, and I still hear people thanking us for that.

Pay it forward. Virginia Tech and the Collegiate times staff were a huge support to us. What a fantastic example they set. The best way we can redeem all that’s happened is to use the experience to help others – in our case, other journalists.