When Tragedy Strikes: Journalists should empathize, not exploit, when covering disasters.

Author:Gallagher, Tim

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...

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