Self-Study Unit 4: The First 24 Hours

Writing for the Christian Science Monitor, journalist William A. Babcock reflected on the death of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Pearl's bosses at the Wall Street Journal asked their journalistic colleagues to respect the Pearl family's privacy and to allow his family members to grieve in private. Babcock wrote that he knew how it felt to be the focus of media attention because when his own brother was murdered on the job as a welfare worker in New York City in 1967, he and his family had to deal with repeated media calls.

"One morning," Babcock recalled, "after the fifth call asking me how I felt, I heard myself screaming into the receiver, asking the reporter how he thought I felt."

Nevertheless, as a reporter himself years later, Babcock would have to seek out family members of murder victims to get quotes and photos.

Babcock wrote that reporters who aggressively pursue stories often see things differently when they themselves are the subject of other reporters' stories.

"It's one thing to be a light shiner," Babcock wrote, "totally something else when the light's on you."

The people involved in a major traumatic event are connected in a web of social and governmental relations. At the scene of the event, there will be victims, friends and family of victims who have come to the scene, and curious by-standers - some of them valuable witnesses, others eager for media exposure but with little substantive information to offer. (See Part 1 of this module for tips on interviewing victims and their families.) Even with the best of intentions, witnesses will occasionally offer erroneous information. Cross-checking and verifying witness accounts can save a journalist from reporting information as facts when they are not.

Also on the scene are likely to be firemen, policemen, paramedics and possibly even federal agents like the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives officers, depending on the nature of the event. Whenever there is a plane crash, there will also be, eventually, members of the National Transportation Safety Board, Federal Aviation Administration, possibly industry (e.g., Boeing) specialists and others. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, American Red Cross and other organizations would arrive to help coordinate disaster relief when massive destruction and human displacement have occurred. All of the people related to these organizations are potential sources of information, but usually specific people will be identified to deal exclusively with the news media. These spokespeople are important hubs in the information network.

It is also not uncommon for high-profile government officials, both elected and non-elected, to show up at the scene of a major disaster. While their presence may contribute to moral support among the rescuers and family members of victims, they may also create impediments to rescue efforts if their entourages create logistical problems and distractions. They contribute to the "convergence" phenomenon referred to earlier.

Away from the scene of the event, there are numerous people journalists might want to talk to: families and friends of victims, current or former classmates or teachers, neighbors, colleagues, and so forth. If a perpetrator is involved, similar contacts may want to be interviewed. Again, considerable care should be taken when contacting these people. Although this shouldn't be the case, there is always the possibility that even family members may not know the status of their loved ones until they have been contacted by the news media or see or hear something on television or radio. News of a dead or seriously injured family member may itself be traumatic to potential interview subjects.

Because injured survivors will be taken to the hospital, the hospital often becomes another place where the news media descend for information. A hospital presents particular challenges for journalists seeking information about survivors. Family members and medical personnel may not be readily accessible, and journalists are certainly not encouraged to directly approach these people without the proper interventions. Under these restricted conditions, the hospital spokesperson can be a critical "accomplice" to newsgathering.

Larry Zalin, former media relations coordinator for Seattle's Harborview Medical Center, the only level-one trauma hospital in a four-state region, served 10 years as principal spokesperson during fast-breaking news events. He has extensive experience dealing with print and broadcast journalists and offered some tips here for those media professionals who contact a hospital for information about survivors or victims' families.

Dart Center: What is the role of the hospital spokesperson, and how does this person factor into the journalist's work during the first 24 hours after a news event involving trauma?

Zalin: In any major hospital, there will be a spokesperson on duty to field journalists' questions in the aftermath of any newsworthy event involving the hospital. This person will either be a full-time public relations staff member (during normal working hours) or a nursing supervisor on evenings, nights and weekends.

This person's role is to serve as an intermediary between the journalist and the injured patient, family members, and hospital staff. Journalists typically seek information in this order: the name, age, medical condition, extent of injuries, prognosis. Then come the requests to interview the patient or family members. Sometimes the journalists also want to interview a doctor.

The spokesperson abides by certain guidelines in responding to these requests. A medical condition can always be given, as well as the extent of injuries. As for name and age, an age can be given, but no name until legal next-of-kin has been notified. Names of minors cannot be released (ever).

In most cases, any patient who's injured seriously enough to be newsworthy isn't able to be interviewed during the first 24 hours. With family members, it's anybody's guess, but the spokesperson is the person to contact them while they're in the hospital; what happens outside the hospital, of course, is up to the family.

The key concept for journalists is that, though they have deadlines, they can't always get everything they want during those first 24 hours. Any conscientious spokesperson will do what he/she can to help the journalist, but a recognition of what's possible is important. (And, of course, I'm not even getting into the issue of whether it's appropriate to stick a microphone in the face of some parent whose kid was just shot!)

Dart Center: Can you provide some tips to journalists about how to develop productive relations with a hospital spokesperson? What are things that you liked about how a journalist interacted with you? What are things that you didn't like?

Zalin: Journalists who show some respect and understanding for the spokesperson's role will get a lot further, in the long run, than those who try to bulldoze past the spokesperson to get the story. Those who do the latter often cause problems; I never appreciated being told by a nurse that a reporter had walked into a patient room unannounced and upset the patient or family.

I understood the role the journalists played and what their needs were, and I also knew that maintaining a good relationship with them would help the hospital. Of course, it was easier to work with those who understood my role, too.

Things I liked: Approaching me with a sense that I had multiple demands for the same information and that I'd try to be fair to all the journalists.
Understanding that I'd do the best I could for them. A recognition that certain information could not be released; it's OK to ask, but don't grumble when I won't tell you if the driver was drunk or the kid was on drugs.

Things I didn't like: Journalists who were so driven "to get the story" (and beat out the other newspaper or TV stations) that they'd try to run roughshod over hospital staff, patients and families.

Dart Center: What advice can you give a journalist who wants to interview a victim of trauma or family members of the victim who are in the hospital? Are there ways of approaching this task that are more helpful than harmful to those who have just been traumatized?

Zalin: Once the interview was cleared (meaning the doctor or nurse said the patient was well enough to be interviewed and the patient consented to my request), I'd try to tell the reporter what he/she needed to know before walking into the patient's room. Most interviews that went according to this protocol went fairly well. Journalists should (and usually did) show some sensitivity toward the patient. A little empathy never hurts ("I know how I felt when my son was hospitalized.") My being in the room may have helped keep things peaceful; I recall one story when two print reporters let themselves into a teenager's room to ask about how drunk he was when he drove the car that killed one of his friends.

Dart Center: Many people assume that journalists are invasive of crime victims' privacy. Are there instances in which crime victims or their families might want to talk to journalists?

Zalin: Crime victims and their families do want to talk for several reasons. They may want the perpetrator to know how much damage he's done. The perpetrator may still be at large, and there may be family request for someone to come forward who may have information that could lead to an arrest. By and large, these interviews involved crime victims who were recovering; with those who weren't, I rarely facilitated interviews. During the brief period they were in the hospital, it was too soon after the crime for this kind of interview.

Dart Center: In your experience, what has been the most difficult part of being a hospital spokesperson?

Zalin: I felt protective of the patients and their families, but I also tried to keep in mind that the journalists had a job to do. There were hospital staff who had a very jaundiced view of journalists, so I had to tread a fine line between them and the journalists. I had to be on everyone's side, at one time or another, not always an easy thing to do.

The role of the hospital spokesperson, or the spokesperson in general for any organization, should not be underestimated. These people are, in effect, information specialists who are well-connected within their respective organizations. When appropriate, they can provide access to sources, documentation, background information, "walk throughs" and a host of other goods and services that can greatly facilitate and enhance the journalist's work. In many respects, they might also be perceived as the "gatekeepers" to things and people that the journalist is after. Like it or not, spokespersons and journalists have a symbiotic relationship that can be alternately productive and frustrating. In the best case scenario, they help each other to tell the most accurate, fair and balanced story possible.