Self-Study Unit 4: The First 24 Hours

In Littleton, Colorado, scene of the worst school shooting in U.S. history, a number of news organizations began suspecting that something was amiss when they noticed heavy communications traffic over police scanners. There were rumors of a shooting, but at first nobody knew the extent of the casualties.

Reporters began making their way to Columbine High School, where the shootings were supposed to have originated. In time, they began to realize the gravity of the situation — and the difficulty of getting accurate information as emergency response personnel, school officials, news media, parents, curious onlookers and others converged upon the scene. Many people will remember that some of the earliest news reports out of Littleton erroneously estimated that 25 students had been killed. This is a reflection of how even official sources — e.g., police or other governmental spokespersons — can make mistakes when providing information to the news media in a time of panic and confusion.

Meg Moritz, producer of a 57-minute documentary called, "Covering Columbine," funded by the Dart Center, examines the impact of the shootings on journalists, students, family members and others. The shootings were a horrific experience for the students who survived it, their families and community members, but it was also traumatic for the journalists covering the story, especially those who were also members of the Columbine community.

In the documentary, journalists talk about how difficult it was, personally and professionally, to cover the story. One journalist says, "I was one of thousands of people who went home and cried." Another actually broke down on air, while at the scene of the shootings, saying how difficult it was as a parent to see other parents there. Some photographers and photo editors spoke about the gruesome pictures they chose not to use because they were too graphic and would be too upsetting to the families of the victims. Instead they chose photos that characterized the tragedy that occurred without resorting to sensationalism.

The journalists also talked about the importance of gathering facts about what happened, thinking especially about the needs of their community. "Those parents need information," one said as she remembered one of the things that motivated her to cover the shootings in the minutes and hours after they occurred.

Not all journalists who covered Columbine treated the tragedy in an ethical and sensitive manner, especially those who did not have strong community ties. Professional transgressions did occur in an effort to get the story at all costs. Misinformation about the Columbine community was printed. Community members felt harassed and hounded by the news media after a while. Unethical methods of getting information were sometimes employed. When these bad journalistic practices occur, all journalists suffer. After a while, one could sense a generally negative attitude toward "the news media" in Columbine - many people just wanted to be left alone.

Moritz's documentary, however, shows that good journalistic practices also occurred. There was a level of introspection and sensitivity in local newsrooms that may not have been readily apparent in the media frenzy that ensued during those painful days and weeks following the shootings.

Littleton, Colorado, is just one example of a traumatic news event that required journalists to go to a crime scene and start gathering facts for their story. Unfortunately, this was one of a series of school shootings on school campuses over the past decade or so, and only one of dozens of major traumatic events that quickly attracted local and national media attention.

Journalists and assignment editors find out about breaking news stories in different ways. Sometimes they receive a phone call from an eyewitness. Sometimes they see a news flash on television or hear a report on the radio - a hostage situation, for example, or a shooting - that one station is the first to air. Sometimes journalists just happen to be at the scene of an event when something unexpected, like an assault or other act of violence, occurs. Often assignment editors will overhear a dispatch on a police scanner that alerts them to a possible crisis.

By whatever means journalists find out about a breaking news story involving trauma, if it's big enough they will eventually find themselves at the scene of a crisis.

New York Times journalist Rick Bragg wrote an article for The Nieman Reports in 2000 that talked about how he weaved storytelling into breaking news. In 1995, Bragg was on the scene of the Oklahoma City bombing shortly after it occurred. In the midst of that devastation, he had two hours to tell a story about what happened. "As I sat there in front of my laptop," Bragg wrote in Nieman, "I had no time to craft pretty sentences. I just had to reach into my mind for the sadness I had seen and the irony of the situation."

What arose from that sadness and irony was the kind of haunting yet informative prose that Bragg has become known for. Here is his lead:

OKLAHOMA CITY--Before the dust and the rage had a chance to settle, a chilly rain started to fall on the blasted-out wreck of what had once been an office building, and on the shoulders of the small army of police, firefighters and medical technicians that surrounded it.

Bragg then told a story of what he observed in the short time that he had been in Oklahoma City. He talked about rescue workers who were not accustomed to tragedy of this magnitude. He interviewed a medical technician who had participated in the surgery of a boy with a severe head injury. He wrote about the shock and the anger.

Later, analyzing the writing process, Bragg wrote: "I don't even know if that is what pure narrative is supposed to be, but it was the best I could do. I found the images, the detail, the grim, dark color of it, to be just as much a part of hard news reporting as the body count."

Bragg was in Oklahoma City to write another story as a Denver jury was deciding the fate of Timothy McVeigh, one of those held responsible for the bombing. He remembers waiting in a hotel room to receive the jury's decision:

"I don't get shook very easy, on breaking news. I have done it more than half my life. But I was nervous then because of the terrible import the story held. This was a man who had wrecked a city, wrecked lives. My story had to carry that import. It would have failed, otherwise. But I also did not want to overwrite it, to lend drama to a story already so dramatic. It would have been like putting a scary mask on a face already horribly disfigured."

(The entire Nieman Reports article by Rick Bragg can be downloaded here. It is the Fall 2000 report, volume 54, no. 3, page 29.)

Of course not all scenes are as strewn with death and destruction as Oklahoma City, Columbine or the World Trade Center. Sometimes a particularly bad car crash might result in a single death. Other times a natural disaster such as a hurricane or tornado might result in a number of deaths and injuries but also massive physical destruction such as the loss of homes. Regardless of the particulars, a journalist (and this word includes photojournalists) is likely to be exposed to trauma - people who have suffered great emotional injury, and who will become part of a story that attempts to answer the familiar who, what, when, where and why questions, the last one sometimes being most difficult to answer.

Coté and Simpson (2000) provide some practical tips in their book Covering Violence: A Guide to Ethical Reporting About Victims and Trauma. First, getting to the scene might be a challenge. When the news media descended on Littleton, Colorado, after the shootings at Columbine High School, for example, one reporter described it this way: "It was complete chaos. It was a mad house." Typically after a major disaster, journalists will encounter similar conditions.

In Covering Violence, the authors suggest that journalists arrive on the scene and immediately assess their surroundings: "Are there injuries and deaths? How extensive is the damage? You will want to find emergency-response and public safety people who are likely to have credible information later. Determine what other places someone will need to check, such as hospital emergency rooms and field hospitals, temporary morgues, and agency public information offices. Finally, stay out of the way as rescue and relief work goes on, and coordinate your reporting with your city or assignment desk" (61).

Other tips:

1. Expect "convergence" - many people rapidly arriving at the scene by foot, cars, or other vehicles. This physical movement of people and things coming to and leaving the scene may create a sense of chaos

2. Expect "communications convergence," as well, as a firestorm of information circulates about the event and media equipment and technologies accumulate.

3. Expect hordes of observers who are not necessarily related to the traumatic event to arrive to just "look and see." These people may add to the chaos and confusion already caused by the traumatic event.

4. There will be a hierarchy of command set up to control crowds, media and rescue and recovery operations. Boundaries will be set up to keep non-emergency personnel at bay. Usually a public information person will be designated to deal with the news media. Identify who that person is as soon as possible.

5. In a disaster situation, there are a number of organizations such as the American Red Cross that may be helpful with information or with supporting victims who would like to speak with the news media.

6. Anticipate controls to media access and how to deal with official or unofficial requests to limit media coverage.

7. Remember that victims of trauma can respond to the traumatic event in a number of different ways: They may be in shock; they may appear hyperactive; they may be highly emotional; they may be in denial; they may be handling things relatively well. It is important not to make assumptions about people's well being. Be attentive and sensitive interviewers.

In the first module, "Journalism & Traumatic Stress," part 4, tips from Covering Violence are offered to journalists who interview people who have been exposed to a traumatic stressor. Go to that section for a fuller discussion of this topic. A review of some of those important tips is offered here:

Respect the other person's efforts to regain balance after a horrible experience
"Offer as much support to the interviewee as conditions will allow. Suggesting that the interviewee ask a friend, neighbor, or relative to be present may reassure her and may help the two of you talk more usefully."

Watch what you say
"At this stage your words carry a lot of weight. They can lead the victim to seek promises from you, to exaggerate what you will be able to do, and to assume that you are willing to be a friend as well as a reporter...Your manner and your first words will tell the other person whether he should trust you and how sincere you are. Those first impressions may decide whether you are ever again able to interview that person."

Set the stage for the interview
"Your first questions will provide you with two kinds of information. The first kind - details of the other person's knowledge of the situation - will help you begin to grasp what has happened... As you talk, you will be learning about the other person's capacity, or willingness, to talk to you."

Explain the ground rules
"Explain why you are there, what kind of story you are expected to write or report, when it is likely to run, and why it is important for her to speak to you. Do not promise something you cannot guarantee; the comments you are about to write down or tape may never make it into print or on the air."

Share control with the interviewee
"A person jolted by an event may need, and will certainly appreciate, a chance to decide some of the conditions of the interview. Would he like to sit or stand? Does he want to remain here or go somewhere away from the turmoil of the scene? Is there someone he would like to have present during the interview?"

Anticipate emotional responses
Referring to the words of psychiatrist Frank Ochberg: "When survivors cry during interviews, they are not necessarily reluctant to continue. They may have difficulty communicating, but they often want to tell their stories. Interrupting them may be experienced as patronizing and denying an opportunity to testify. Remember, if you terminate an interview unilaterally, because you find it upsetting, or you incorrectly assume that your subject wants to stop, you may be re-victimizing the victim."

"Good listening requires hearing not only the words that are spoken and making sense of them, but also noticing gestures, facial expressions, emotions, and body language. Take the other person fully into account, then remember and make sense of what that person heard and saw."
Review with the interviewee what you have learned.

"This is the time to go back over the facts, to read back statements that you may want to quote, and to arrange to obtain photographs, continue the interview, or check back for other information."

Think through what you have heard and seen
"The interview you have just completed was not a routine one. Think about what made it different. The person with whom you talked was enduring one of the most trying experiences in life. Such an interview can alter many of the assumptions journalists make about the people they talk to. Issues of trust, harm and responsibility to others emerge from such meetings to a degree unmatched in most news interviewing. This is a time for a few moments of reflection about what you have just heard and seen."