How to avoid losing grip, when covering a seemingly unexplainable story


No doubt, the shootings at the Colorado movie theater, is the kind of story that haunts us journalists.  I can tell you, no matter how much you cover stories like these, the emotion you feel remains the same:  Raw.  It is impossible not to feel an intense emotional reaction.  But how those gut feelings sway our coverage decisions is crucial.

We must make time to stop and think.  We need to take a hard look at how we are determining our coverage philosophy.

Right when I learned of the shooting, I started re-tweeting interesting issues that were coming out about covering this type of story.  I soon stopped myself because it was obvious to me that many journalists were on edge.  The story was getting to everyone.   How could it not?  That was not the time to talk about why we journalists were defaulting to police speak and immediately discussing whether metal detectors need to go into movie theaters now.

I am not going to go into whether angles like theater security, potential causes for this kind of shooting, and whether installing metal detectors in movie theaters should have been brought up the morning of the shootings.  Al Tompkins of Poynter summed that up beautifully.

What I am going to ask you to consider is why we “go there” with these angles, so we can look at how not to “lose grip” on the  impact.  Let’s begin with deferring to “police speak” as coverage begins for these types of events.  It is natural to go into CYA mode and fear deviating from the exact language the “authorities” use, in order to prevent possibly misinterpreting what they say.  I also think journalists defer to this type of language to set up a sort of emotional barrier between us and the story we are covering.  By writing in a very conversational way, it is only human to really feel the impact of the story.  By deferring to police speak we are setting up a sort of emotional detachment from the reality we are struggling to grasp ourselves.  As difficult as these stories are, and as hectic as the pace is in covering them, you must take even a few seconds to let yourself feel the range of emotions.  You need to allow yourself to see them, so you can then move forward with your job.  When headed to the booth in these situations I often stopped and took a series of breaths before walking into the control room.  I needed to recognize this hurts like hell to think about, and we have an obligation to respect that for everyone who will hear it.

When it comes to worrying whether you misinterpret information, ask questions to be clear.  So often we become obsessed with being first and rationalize stilted language and possible errors by saying “Its breaking news, viewers understand.”  They don’t completely.  They expect you to ask questions.  Defaulting to police speak does not make you seem more credible or show that you “checked the info out” before reporting.  It is a tell-tale sign to viewers that you are uncomfortable with the information you are reporting.  Instead, use attribution.  That way as information changes, viewers can see how the information has changed, and who changed it, more clearly.

I also am going to encourage you to talk openly, with the viewers, about how the newsroom is gathering information, as you gather it.  So often while doing continuous coverage, anchors are filling time, until new information comes in.  This can be an incredible opportunity to let viewers “see the process.”  Have a reporter or EP stand by the assignment desk and explain that the newsroom is monitoring Twitter, the networks, local feeds, scanners etc.  Explain that you like to get two sources saying the same thing before you go with it (if that’s your station policy of course).  Take a live “picture only” of your field crews walking around talking to people.  This will make you less nervous about also asking the information gatherers questions.  In fact, ask viewers to tweet or email questions about the story that you can try and answer as well.  Interact.  Don’t guess what they want to know in this type of situation, ask them.  You might get an incredible angle this way.

The term “go big or go home” should not mean forcing angles in so that you can be “first” on the next development.  Own the here and now.  Too often we skip past the part of stories like this that viewers are trying to understand most.  In Produce it up I talked about weaving in perspective throughout the earthquake coverage in Japan.  Specifically, how to showcase elements that helped the viewer see the scope of what happened.  We forget the crucial need for perspective because we are working at a whirlwind pace, not stopping to really absorb what happened.  Remember, viewers can get the basic facts.  They need us to connect them together in a clear way for some understanding.

We often forget the role of reporter and anchor to the viewer, especially in these situations.  Anchors are the viewers’ advocates.  Anchors ask the questions the viewer’s cannot.  Reporters are the eyewitnesses.  If you focus on these roles when designing continuing coverage and the angles that follow, you have a tremendous opportunity to enhance your relationship with the viewer.  Too often approaches to continuous coverage over emphasize “new” instead of explaining what’s there, right now.  Remembering these roles will also help you avoid “police speak” because it demands you ask questions throughout the news gathering process.  As eyewitnesses, reporters do not have to know all the answers right away.  The anchor can ask a question and the reporter can explain how he/she is going about getting that information.  It shows that the team is trying to give viewers what they need to understand the event.  It also naturally helps producers avoid exaggerating the facts with “sexy sells.”  You are “selling” your team’s credibility.

Finally, as you sit in editorial meetings and are told “viewers want more of this, what angle can we do?” do not misinterpret “finding blame” for “advocacy.”  We journalists often do this.  Ask if you are exaggerating the situation with the ideas you bounce around.  I mean actually ask, out loud.  Often people are in that editorial meeting thinking it, but afraid to say so.  Take the time to talk it through.  Slow the whirlwind pace just a little bit.  If not you will play on the fear factor, possibly too much.  In terms of the shooting at the movie theater in Colorado, I shuddered in the morning thinking, “The first angle will be theater security.”  Sure enough, a journalist tweeted the question “should there be metal detectors in movie theaters,” six hours into the coverage and as half of America was waking up hearing this for the first time (this reporter was on east coast as well).  Three hours later I saw a reporter tweet, touting an exclusive on how easily he was able to sneak into a movie theater unnoticed.  Honestly this is a stereotypical “fear” angle to go for.  Why do we journalists do this?  Again, we confuse advocacy with blaming someone.  We figure viewers are saying “Why isn’t someone protecting us?”  We decide we must answer.  After all, these feelings are human.   But you must look “big picture” for the WIFM.  What impact will this shooting have on people, today, tomorrow and next year?  This requires providing proper perspective.  Does the sneaking into a movie theater or using a metal detector angle accurately portray reality as we know it?  How often do viewer’s walk through a metal detector in their daily lives?  Should there now be metal detectors every public place we go?  Think about that when you go to the grocery store in the next few days.  Shootings have happened at grocery stores too.  Sometimes there is no clear blame to be laid except on the person who did the shooting.  Viewers know that better than we do sometimes.  Do they expect us to hold people accountable, or help them see how people are reacting to this happening?   People coming together to grieve, and to console each other are the more likely realities.  They are realities that showcase impact. Helping with those efforts is advocacy.

Now that you see why we tend to resort to these “crutches,” challenge yourself to look back on your newsroom’s coverage so far.  Does some of this ring true?  Did part of the coverage you helped with or saw “lose grip” on the impact of this event?  If so, stop and learn from it.  Viewers are counting on you.  It isn’t too late.