The Virginia Tech Shootings

Dart Center Ochberg Fellows and other journalists who have covered large-scale killings share their advice for colleagues.

Lessons Learned From Reporting Mass Murder

Dart Center Ochberg Fellows and other journalists who have covered large-scale killings share their advice for colleagues.

Sharon Schmickle, reporter, Minneapolis Star Tribune:

While covering the Rocori High and Red Lake High School shootings in Minnesota, I learned the value of friends you cultivate in a small town. While the press mob descends on the campus, people removed from the scene — a waitress at a coffee shop down the road or the lunch lady at the senior center — can, in effect, act as your fixer. This person, who knows everyone in town, also can serve as a buffer for survivors who want their stories told but aren't prepared to deal with the pack of journalists.


Dave Cullen, freelance journalist:

Be careful. We are creating the Virginia Tech myths right now. I covered Columbine, and nearly everything we "know" about it is wrong. I studied the CNN transcripts of the first four hours after they went live on Columbine, and I found that nearly all the major myths were solidly in place by then. Whether we know it — or mean it — we are creating the Virginia Tech myths this very minute.

There were three major reasons for the Columbine myths:

1. Preconceptions of a supposed school-shooter profile were forced onto it — Key myth: The Columbine shooters were "outcasts"

2. Scraps of data were fused and extrapolated — Key myth: They were part of the "Trenchcoat Mafia"

3. Once we believed a certain narrative, we couldn't let go, even when overwhelming evidence contradicted it — Key myth: They were targetting jocks

An authoritative joint report by the Secret Service and Dept. of Education on school shooters found "there is no accurate or useful 'profile' of attackers." Yet the media will construct a profile this week anyway, and try to fit this attacker to it. We should resist, but also understand that there are some key characteristics, and there are several different profiles. We will never get the media to cease speculation completely, but there are respsonsible ways to channel it. The above report (and a great FBI report) list several common characteristics; eg, 95 percent were current students, 73 percent felt threatened, bullied, etc., 100 percent were male.


Steven Gorelick, professor of media studies, Hunter College, City University of New York:

Be very careful about the experts you select as sources. These kinds of high-profile stories are magnets for everyone from legitimate scholars and practitioners to self-proclaimed “profilers.”

Serious experts are almost always quick to admit that there is no easy explanation for why and how something happened, especially before even the most basic information is released. Beware of the expert source who is just dying to be helpful. And perk up your ears when  someone tells you: “I really need to get more information before I have anything useful to say.”


Scott Wallace, freelance journalist:

Despite the fact that we are all on deadline, you must take the time to breathe, empathize and feel the pain of survivors and loved ones whom you interview and come in contact with. You need to process that pain yourself. Take time to consider the significance of this event for you as a person, as well as a journalist. Do not rush interviews. Be careful about cutting your subjects off. Be respectful of their need for privacy.

Above all, forget trying to "scoop" your colleagues on this story. A spirit of cooperation should reign among the reporters, photographers and producers on a story like this. It may be useful to work in tandem with a colleague or two from some other media outlet, sharing the material and the experience of the interview rather than putting the same subject through it multiple times.


Lena Jakobsson, producer, Court TV:

Stop and listen to your gut. This is the sort of story that introduces many of us to the TV news circus for the very first time — a world that's equally frenzied whether we're covering Anna Nicole Smith or a tragedy of these proportions. It presents all sorts of ethical dilemmas, but almost no time to weigh them. (I learned this eight years ago, on a muddy lawn outside Columbine High, when I was handed a list of dead children's families and told to start calling.) Chasing victims' family members down the street seems like a far more reasonable idea if CNN and MSNBC and FOX and all the nets are doing it, too, and you're about to get yelled at if you don't get that video. But you always have at least a few seconds to stop and listen to what your gut is telling you. Ratings come and go. The impact on your integrity, and on the people you're covering — that stays.


Philip Williams, Australian Broadcasting Corp.:

I was sent alone to cover the Madrid Bombings in which 200 people were killed in a series of explosions set by terrorists in trains. Reporting for both radio and TV, the deadlines and demands were relentless. It will no doubt be the same for the Virginia Tech story.

For five days, I averaged one hour's sleep a night. By the end of the assignment I was a physical and emotional wreck — the long hours combining with the harrowing interviews with survivors and the relatives of those killed. On day five, my speech was beginning to slur and my thought processes were so slow I could barely function. In short, I was exhausted — and so was my capacity to work properly. If I'd just said I need a decent sleep to continue, I would have been able to stay on the job.

My mistake was I didn't want to admit I needed a break. No doubt in the coming days editors will be demanding continuous coverage, but it is in both the organisation's and your own interest to rest. If you don't, something will give. Don't stay out late, don't overwork ... get to bed. You'll be a better reporter for a good nights sleep.


Joe Hight, managing editor, The Oklahoman, and president of the Dart Center's Executive Committee:

Journalists covering this massacre should understand that their coverage must be about facts, not speculation and conspiracy theories that stir people into irrational action. They also must remember that their coverage affects people — the families of the victims, the survivors and the community. 

They also should consider that their interview approaches to those family members must be sensitive and respectful. That they should be careful not to intrude upon private property and personal grieving space where they are not welcome. That it's OK to say "I'm sorry."

If they do, then those journalists will be remembered as ethical and credible in their coverage.


Liisa Hyvarinen, Adjunct Professor in print,web and TV journalism at University of South Florida in Tampa, Fl.:

1. TV people: Leave the camera in the car when first approaching victims' families at home, especially when they don't know you are coming. Having the camera point straight at their faces as you ask for the interview makes it less likely that you'll get the interview.

2. TV people: If possible try not to chase after the victims in a "perp walk" mob scene. Being chased and having questions yelled at you when you've just survived or witnessed a shooting, or when you've just lost your best friend, is understandably hard.

3. Ease into the most difficult interview material to give the victims time to collect their thoughts, and don't rush them. Don't start with the most traumatizing or horrible question.

4. In the weeks and months to come, write letters and e-mails and leave notes on doors to find interviews and let the interview subjects come to you, rather than staking out their homes, dorms or workplaces.


Trina McLellan, sub-editor, The Courier-Mail (Queensland, Australia):

Take a moment to acknowledge the grief and the assistance of those who speak to the media in an official or unofficial capacity, especially in the early days. They, too, are under enormous duress as the circumstances unfold and may themselves still be in shock. When facts are unclear and/or dynamic, pushing these people harder rarely uncovers the truth but simply further exhausts these people who are trying to do their best in awful circumstances.


Kathryn Eastburn, contributing editor, Colorado Springs Independent:

Buried within all the hype of human drama — how you responded, what you did when you heard the gunshots, riding it out, getting shot, losing your sons and daughters, etc. — is one common denominator: the inevitable impact of gun shots. Trace the history of all these massacres in America and you can't find any common denominator among the perpetrators beyond their inexcusably easy access to lethal weapons.


Scott North, reporter and assistant city editor, The Herald (Everett, Wash.):

In the race to get it first, don't forget the long view. It often helps to think less about gathering fact and more about creating relationships. Some of the best stories won't be told for days, weeks, months or, in some cases, years.

People in grief have long memories. You will want to be able to return to these people when they are ready to tell you what they've learned, not just what they know. The golden rule can't hurt you here. Approach people the way you'd want to be approached. Give them the respect and space you'd expect in the same situation.

If they talk with you, make this promise: No surprises. Read the quotes they've supplied back to them. Summarize how you may use the information. Make sure they have your contact information, and make sure you have theirs. The point is to start a conversation, and to continue it as time passes.