Covering School Shootings
April 20, 2009 by Jim Killam
- Write down everything you hear: A full half-hour probably passed between when I heard that there was a shooting in the building next door and when I realized how serious and grave the situation really was. In that time, I was scratching notes all over the pages of my notebook, piecing things together based on what was coming from the lips of the students who were in the room and building. This process of piecing things together based only on what I was hearing from fellow students allowed my mind and personal thoughts to stay out of the way of the work at hand.
- Let autopilot kick in: Despite the enormity of the situation and story at hand, the fundamentals of covering the story still applied. By keeping the journalist hats on and personal feelings and thoughts aside, student journalists for the Star were able to focus on doing interviews and other work the same way they would for a more routine story.
- Call, text, or e-mail loved ones to tell them you are OK. After the events of Feb. 14 it took me about six hours to tell my family I was OK. They were hysterical during this period of time, wondering if I was all right.
- Always be prepared: pen, paper, press pass, voice recorder. Cell phone camera or something better.
- Work hard to develop good working relationships with police and rescue workers BEFORE anything like this happens. This will pay off immediately by the access you get, and by preferential treatment granted local journalists whom the sources already know.
- Accuracy above all. The world is not only watching, it’s stealing stories from your website. They’d better be accurate. This is make-or-break time for your paper’s credibility.
Doing the work
- Remember who you work for: the people in the community. As students fled town and parents all over the state searched for answers and found www.northernstar.info in the process, the Northern Star took on a powerful responsibility. People wanted and deserved accurate answers and information as soon as possible. The Northern Star provided the message board for the community, providing all sorts of organizations the avenue to get their message out to students and community members. People from within and beyond the NIU community expressed their feelings and messages of solidarity in the pages of the Northern Star.
- Remember what you are covering. Never let the adrenaline of covering a big story become a thrill. In our case, one of our own student-newspaper colleagues was among the students killed, and two others had escaped that classroom. That immediately made the story personal.
- Support your co-workers: The weight of the work of covering a shooting was enormous, and required incredible teamwork from everyone involved. Specific job titles and descriptions were almost totally arbitrary; everyone did anything they could to help one another. Everyone was helping each other, doing whatever they could to distribute the weight of the responsibility as evenly as possible.
- At some point you have to pull yourself away from what is going on and get some sleep. I stayed in the newsroom or was covering events after the tragedy for 13 hours. I finally drew myself away from the office and found how exhausted I was. I got about four hours of sleep, and it was very much needed, because the next day there was just as much work to do as the day before. There's no way I could have pulled an all-nighter.
- Work as a team. You can’t do everything by yourself. Take time, sit down and make a game plan in which you delegate responsibilities. Make sure to include everyone who wants to be included. Those who are sitting around in the newsroom want to be doing something; otherwise they wouldn’t be there. So give everyone a job.
- Be sensitive. Watch how the national media acts, and don’t act that way. Don’t be vultures. Don’t do or ask anything that makes you uncomfortable, and keep your voice down.
- Think of the victims and their families; be careful not to glorify the killer or the bad in your coverage.
- Remember you are a student, too. This gives you an advantage in coverage by having connections with the campus and community that outside media does not.
- In a high-profile event, 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. In interviews: Say what you know and what you saw. Don’t speculate. Don’t generalize.
- Designate one or two editors to answer media requests. Otherwise, the whole newsroom can be consumed with it and you can’t get your own work done.
After the story
- Take time to socialize: A couple days after the shootings and after putting what seemed like a million hours into the work of covering this story, a dozen or so Northern Star staffers and editors went out to eat and share a few drinks. The release and uplift this provided us was so helpful and really gave us renewed energy and purpose in doing a good job.
- Be sad: After the immediate work was done, it was important to realize that what happened was a tragedy, and was horribly sad. No one should have to feel like their job as a journalist is to not be affected by tragedy they may have to cover. While it is a journalist’s job to cover the tragedy, the journalist is also a person who must reconcile the two separate approaches to the situation. Emotion is important to recognize, and to allow for the sake of moving on as a person.
- Once you have finished covering the event, and things begin to go back to normal, you have to talk about your experience. By reporting what is going on, sometimes you aren’t dealing with what has been happening. While everyone else in the world has been experiencing the event, you haven’t. So once things go back to normal, it’s almost like you realized what just happened.
- Don’t get so lost in your work that you completely distance yourself from what has happened. You have to distance yourself to an extent to cover the event for your readers, but you are also experiencing it too. If you completely escape from it into your work, then recovering will become extremely hard. It’s OK to escape for a bit, but not forever.
- Keep an eye on your coworkers. Everyone copes differently. Some may be dealing with the incident by hiding their feelings. If you notice something, ask if everything is OK. Sometimes just talking to someone who is going through what you are can help a great deal.
- Don’t ever take for granted the camaraderie that can be found in the newsroom.
- Be sensitive with images. Graphic photos of the carnage may be legit for a day or two. After that, your community does not want to see them.
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Video: Covering the NIU Tragedy