Business of News: Journalists Should Empathize, Not Exploit, When Covering Disasters

One of the jokes about Southern California is that our weather is so nice here, outsiders think we have no seasons. We have seasons. Fire season. Earthquake season. Mudslide season. Flood season.

And lately—no jocularity intended—we have mass shootings in any season of year.

Covering disasters—whether natural or caused by humans—is a way of life for journalists everywhere. Newspapers can gain credibility and build connections with their communities if they cover tragedy correctly: emphasizing accuracy; thinking like residents and being accessible to them; and carefully ensuring that you cover the story, and do not become the story. These are the tenets of disaster and tragedy coverage every newsroom ought to follow.

Accuracy has always been at the apex of everything we do. During tragedies, the rumors reported by citizens—even by elected officials—can be wildly inaccurate and can cause needless panic. The bar for newspaper reporters must be higher. Even simple things such as fact-checking information before re-tweeting it (or ensuring the original tweet came from an official source).

Information during a tragedy comes at reporters and the community like water from a fire hose. Sifting through that is crucial. The foundation of our business is being known as an organization that can be trusted to carefully check those rumors, tweets and comments found on Nextdoor.

In normal times, our skepticism of government officials and their actions should be vigilant. But in times of turmoil for a community, I might align with local officials on release of information in order to keep calm in a community. If they asked our newspaper to wait to release information and had a good public reason, I think I would go along with it.

At the same time, I am trying to align with local officials, I would assign someone to file all the public records requests for information, studies and reports about the tragedy and track them. Kudos to my local media in Thousand Oaks, Calif. whose public records requests helped break the story that a police officer who died in the line of duty in the Borderline Bar and Grill shooting was actually killed by friendly fire. While it was an uncomfortable story, it showed that the media was playing its watchdog role.

I would be especially careful with visual coverage to ensure it accurately represents the facts. (Footnote here about separating ourselves from TV brethren. For example, the same shot of wildfire flames repeatedly endlessly might be appropriate for them as they cycle news every 15 minutes for the “viewers just tuning in.”) I think our photography must take a broader and still compelling view.

I also believe our thinking should change just slightly toward a sympathetic side. I’ll never forget the Rocky Mountain News headline the day after the Columbine shooting that had nothing to do with words such as “massacre” or “crazed gunmen.” The simple one-word headline was “Heartbreak.” It showed the Rocky feeling with the community rather than exploiting it.

On the scale of large tragedies that attract national news reporters, there is a different role for the local media. It starts at the beginning as you develop a relationship with officials and citizens and make sure to remind them you are the local media and you are there for the long haul. I have known editors to give their cell phone numbers to local families and encourage calls at any time to talk about coverage, or to make sure a story is told accurately and with sensitivity. (At this point I might as well differentiate between responsible reporting and the errors made by the staff of the college newspaper staff at Northwestern. Sensitive reporting doesn’t mean you won’t hurt someone’s feelings.)

In the past, I have written about the No Notoriety movement to report the identity of killers in shooting cases, but not to cover them in a way that gives them the notoriety they seek.

Finally, I’d be cautious about allowing staff to give interviews to other media or write first-person accounts of their coverage. There’s an old saying that goes, “We are here to cover the story. We are not the story.” And while it might sound cranky, I believe it keeps you safely away from the line of exploitation. News organizations act in poor taste and damage their credibility when they tout their coverage of tragedies. As a reader, I can determine how well you’ve told the story.

Tim Gallagher is president of The 20/20 Network, a public relations and strategic communications firm. He is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and publisher at The Albuquerque Tribune and the Ventura County Star newspapers. Reach him at tim@the2020network.com.

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One thought on “Business of News: Journalists Should Empathize, Not Exploit, When Covering Disasters

  • January 24, 2020 at 6:57 am
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    when will you learn, at long last, that journalists’ job is neither to empathize nor to exploit when covering news: journalists’ job is to report the news … that, in and of itself, is a darned difficult, 24/7, job …

    Reply

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