By Alexi Cohan
In times of crisis, many people rely on the media for information that would otherwise be unavailable. As journalists, we hold the incredible responsibility and privilege of informing the public not only about everyday news, but also tragic events like mass shootings. This means reporting must be precise and consolidated so as not to create mass panic about false or inconsistent information, which is easier said than done.
There is a basic set of standards that every journalist learns in regard to reporting breaking news. Despite these standards, mass shooting coverage is highly flawed in the national media, but there’s a way to fix it.
Some of the best practices for covering a mass shooting, or a tragedy of any kind, include naming the shooter infrequently and only when their name is important to the story. Additionally, it is crucial to be accurate and contextual about even the smallest details. Reporters must be careful when speculating about mental illness and must avoid airing or printing images of the shooter that could in any way glorify acts of violence. Naming the mass shooting is also something that must be taken into consideration. Superlatives like “the deadliest mass shooting ever” could lead to even more hysteria, so media outlets should avoid this kind of sensationalism.
Despite the fact that these basic practices are in place for good reason, we often see them disregarded when there is a shooting. This especially happens with networks and other national news outlets. Small facts are inconsistent, the shooter’s name is mentioned and glorified and superlative titles are given to each shooting, hyping up the event to grab the attention of every news consumer. It is sick to think that while people have died, ratings are soaring for coverage of “the deadliest mass shooting in America.”
One way to improve mass shooting coverage would be to rely more heavily on local news outlets in the city or state of the shooting. When something happens, many people are quick to check CNN, CBS, ABC or NBC for coverage. However, instead of relying on national networks, one should check local news outlets’ Twitter feeds, websites and stations. While national networks tend to sensationalize, local newspapers and stations are closer in proximity to the actual event and are more fact-driven. In general, as consumers of news we do not recognize the importance of local news enough. Local producers and writers are well-connected and provide a first-person experience of an event. National networks are usually retelling information that local stations found originally. With lower-profile anchors and reporters, local stations are less concerned about plugging a story and more concerned with steady reporting and consistent facts.
Many times during a shooting, one will read a fact from one news source and see a different fact on another news source. This is a grave mistake in journalism that needs to be remedied immediately. Accuracy is always more important than speed and a retraction can never fully make up for the airing or printing of an incorrect fact. Therefore, fact-checking is incredibly important and all published or aired material should be confirmed by at least three sources. These sources should include local police, at least one other news organization and a witness if possible.
In a digital age where information moves quickly over smartphones and social media, it is time for reporters to take a step back and wait to publish information that could be inaccurate.
While reporting mass shootings and other tragedies is a unique challenge that most all journalists will experience in their career, the current practices and standards that are being followed are inexcusable. In a time of crisis, the world looks to journalists for information and it is our duty to quell the fears of the public by providing accurate, consistent information instead of causing confusion and panic.
In all, reliance on local outlets must increase and fact-checking should be amplified to a maximum level for events of such gravity.
The views and opinions expressed in the Editorial section are those of the authors of the articles. They are not an endorsement of the views of The Chronicle or its staff. The Chronicle does not discriminate based on the opinions of the authors.