CAMP 2016: Covering mass shootings: Best practices for journalists

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Seema Yasmin, Marina Trahan Martinez and Mary C. Curtis talk about covering mass shootings and other breaking news events on Oct. 29, 2016.

Story by Brenna Goth, 2016 JAWS Fellow | Photo by Erica Yoon, CAMP photographer

Journalists never know when they might be called to cover a mass shooting or other violent tragedy.

Reporters are not always prepared. National publications might send them to an unfamiliar place or local media could pull them off their normal beats. Unreliable official sources, misinformation spread through social media and competing narratives can complicate the chaos.

Journalists who have covered recent high-profile shootings from Dallas to Orlando shared their experiences on Oct. 29 at the JAWS 2016 CAMP. More than a dozen journalists attended the panel, “The Art of Storytelling: Covering the Mass Shootings.”

Independent journalist Mary C. Curtis and Marina Villeneuve, a reporter for The Associated Press in Maine, helped lead the conversation.

Here are some best practices to keep in mind:

Be prepared: Marina Trahan Martinez, a member of the Dallas Morning News Watchdog Team, said she was working out when she was called to cover the recent mass shooting in Dallas. Marina headed straight to the scene, she said, and used the essentials in her “to-go bag” to report for hours. Every reporter needs a bag with items including pens, notebooks, a cellphone charger and gum or snacks, she said. Marina said she worked for hours with no time to eat, she said.

“It’s our job as journalists to answer the call,” she said.

Use social media wisely: One challenge of covering the Dallas shooting was that the social media accounts of official agencies reported false information, said Seema Yasmin, staff writer for The Dallas Morning News. Stories also emerged from social media, including one about the son of a victim who used social platforms in the midst of the chaos. Connecting to those sources contributed to the paper’s reporting.

Context matters: Journalists have a duty to provide context in reporting on violent incidents and police shootings, said Tracie Powell, founder of AllDigitocracy.org. That includes talking about the history of police departments’ relationships with various communities, for example, and challenging the acceptance of police knowledge as fact.

“I think when we talk about context we’re also talking about trust,” Tracie said.

Journalists lose trust when context is missing, she said, and reporters owe communities the whole story. Credibility is further eroded by a lack of diversity in newsrooms covering these stories and the loss of institutional knowledge in newsrooms with younger journalists, the panelists said.

Find the narratives: Knowledge of a community can lead reporters to more sensitive stories. Arelis Hernandez, a reporter for The Washington Post, worked for years in Orlando before she was sent back as a national reporter to cover the Orlando shooting. Arelis, who speaks Spanish and has tapped into the Puerto Rican community, says she knew where to find storylines.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy. Different groups were affected by and connected to the event, and sometimes there was tension between those groups, she said.

“Which narrative is the true narrative?” she asked.

Be transparent: When news outlets make a mistake, they should explain to readers why that happened, Tracie said. For example, if an official account misreports information, journalists should explain why they got it wrong.