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Hard News: When journalists cover tragedy

National News Literacy Week is a time to understand how journalism happens, and how it impacts not only the people who consume it, but the people who produce it as well.
Posted: 6:12 PM, Jan 26, 2023
Updated: 2023-01-26 23:31:31-05
Lai Lai Ballroom in Alhambra

BAKERSFIELD, Calif — When tragedy strikes, journalists work around the clock to try and bring viewers the latest details. This National News Literacy Week (January 23 - 27) comes at a time when the nation is dealing with multiple mass shootings. While our coverage as journalists is important to the public, the impact it has on us can be overwhelming.

Aaron Mason, News Director at WKBW in Buffalo, New York, led his team through the Tops Supermarket mass shooting in 2022and experienced firsthand what it was like. He says while a large part of his job is getting the facts, it's also checking on the wellbeing of his newsroom staff.

"It was overwhelming, it was frustrating, it was incredibly sad," said Mason. "There was anger and outrage, because we're journalists, but we're members of this community as well."


When a shooting or other newsworthy event happens, journalists from around the country jump into action, many traveling by car or even airplane to bring you the information you need and want to know.

"My first thing in my role as news director, my first responsibility, was getting to the scene and getting my crews to the scene," said Mason.

But while the reporters are out in the field gathering the pieces of the story, gathering the who, what, when, where, why, and how, the community is already asking for information.

"We were getting calls from the community saying, 'Why aren't you guys on? There's a mass shooting over here at the supermarket.' People were craving information, but it takes time for us to get crews into place, to get a director into place that we can break in," explained Mason.

In this social media-driven news era, Mason says one of his top priorities was not so much making sure they were first to break details, but that the community was getting reliable coverage. This commitment to accuracy even at the expense of breaking a story is what separates journalists from bloggers, streamers, and influencers.

"To bring our viewers, whether they were joining us on TV or social media, to the scene, and providing them with that instant reaction from the community, but also information that we were able to confirm with police before we put it out there," said Mason.

While informing the public was certainly something Mason wanted to ensure, he says he had another duty to his newsroom. He started checking in with his team early on to make sure they were holding together.

"In those first few hours, it was all just breaking news, and it was just kind of go, go, go," said Mason. "I want to say it was after our 7:00 news that night where we had a moment to just kind of catch our breath."

Mason also took the time to check on his journalist of color.

"I also knew that this was affecting the Black journalist in my newsroom in a much different way, because this was their community. This person specifically drove 4 hours to Buffalo and targeted this supermarket because it served a predominantly Black neighborhood," said Mason.

No matter a journalist's role, Mason says it's important to be human.

"He [the Tops shooter] was coming here driven by hate for Black people, and my team of journalists are professionals first and foremost, but they are people, and you can never forget that, whether you're a news manager or whether you're a reporter in the field," said Mason.

Mason recalled specifically WKBW's coverage during a special newscast highlighting each victim and the impact it had on the African-American director.

"I could hear him starting to break down on my headset, and I remember saying - his name is Aaron, too - 'Hang in there, Aaron. We're almost through this. We're going to get through this,'" Mason remembers. "And we did."

After the broadcast, Mason says he and the director held each other for a few minutes while breaking down in tears. He says it is a time he will always remember.

"I'll never forget that, because it was a reminder to me of the magnitude of what just happened in our community, and how as a news director, I have a responsibility to also make sure that my staff is okay," said Mason.

One way he continued to check on his staff is by making sure their voices were heard, too. They continued telling the stories of the lives lost, even today, through their Buffalo Strong Conversations series, where they sit down and have uncut conversations with victims' families.


Covering tragedies: How much is too much?

"We see people on their best days, and we also see people on their worst days," said Mason.

When covering mass shootings as journalists, we are first looking at the who, what, when, where, why, and how, but there is so much more that goes into it. The question is: How much is too much?

For Aaron Mason and the WKBW team in Buffalo, covering the Tops shooting involved a lot of ethical decision-making.

"We decided early on that we would only use the suspect's name when we absolutely had to, and that's when it was related to court proceedings," said Mason.

Researchers say this is the choice newsrooms around the country have to make when mass shootings occur, but according to journalism professor Elizabeth Skewes, there are two sides.

"Several news organizations started saying 'We are just not going to talk about the shooter at all unless there's some major development or something like that,' and the problem with that is, if you think about the role of the media, the media are supposed to give us the information that we need in order to impact policy decisions and things like that," said Skewes.

Professor Kim Walsh-Childers agrees about not using shooters' names becoming a media trend.

"There have been also, I think, some reduction in the likelihood of using the shooter's name. I'm seeing more and more stories of either the gunman is named one time and never again, or in which the shooter was not named at all," said Walsh-Childers.

Here in Bakersfield, residents fall on both sides of the dilemma.

Lisa Coble of Bakersfield says the motive of shooters is more important than identifying details.

"I don't need to know their name, because they don't need to be glorified for something they did that was villainous, but if someone came in saying 'I did this because I was bullied the whole time,' that's interesting to know. 'I did this because I went to teachers and they told me to get over it,' I want to know that," said Coble, "But I don't need to know their name. I don't need to know their religion. I don't need to know their race. I don't need to know their creed."

Bakersfield resident Ray Franco thinks the details are important from a public safety standpoint.

"Well, sure, you want to cover that guy. You want to find out where he's at, what's wrong with him, is he mental, why is he like that," said Franco. "I think that's important. I really do."

While the goal is not to glorify the suspect, Walsh-Childers says there are specific expectations for news outlets when covering a shooting.

"I would say that there are circumstances in which the public does need to know. Certainly if the shooter has not been killed or has not killed himself or has not been arrested, then there is a good argument to be made not only for using the shooter's name, but also using a photograph of some kind," said Walsh-Childers.

Mason says that WKBW does have guidelines similar to what Walsh-Childers suggests, but that he feels his duty was to those who died.

"When it's a mass shooting, again, we are going to cover the event," said Mason. "There's a lot of questions surrounding how did it happen, why did it happen, but we want to make sure that all the unfortunate victims are not lost in that cloud of smoke there."

And that's a duty the WKBW newsroom has committed to since the day the shooting took place. They have covered all the victims' funerals.

"It was so important for us to, in our coverage, to make sure that our viewers saw the victims not just as 10 people, as the number 10, but as individuals who had families at home," said Mason.

Walsh-Childers says she's found through her research that ensuring the victim is covered is important to some families.

"It is incredibly painful and harmful to those family members when their loved ones are essentially ignored and their pain goes unreported," said Walsh-Childers.

Professor Skewes agrees, but says there's a time and place to speak with grieving families.

"We don't need to get somebody who's just lost a family member, or barely has a family member in the hospital. We don't need to get them on camera or we don't need to do an interview right away," said Skewes. "Those stories can wait."


The impact of news coverage of mass shootings on the community

A 2015 study found that after a mass shooting, there was an increased chance of another one occurring in 13 days.

Similarly, a 2017 study found that media coverage of a mass shooting may increase the frequency of future shootings for a period of two weeks or longer.

"The problem here is that the coverage can actually directly increase the likelihood of other people dying in a subsequent mass shooting," said Kim-Walsh-Childers, a professor of journalism at the University of Florida.

Another result of mass shooting coverage some researchers are finding is the copycat effect.

"It encourages other people who might be sort of like-minded, who might have thought about doing something like that, it's sort of a prompt or trigger that encourages them to engage in a similar behavior," said Walsh-Childers.

While some research shows a mass shooting may increase the frequency of future shootings, Elizabeth Skewes, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Colorado at Boulder says we are just doing our jobs as journalists.

"That really comes as a result of the shooting, I believe, rather than the coverage of the shooting. We don't glorify shooters in our media coverage, we simply acknowledge that a shooting happened," said Skewes.


Improving journalism through in-depth reporting and community conversation

From how we cover the shooters to how we navigate conversations with the families of the victims, journalism can be difficult, but we are continuously working to move forward and improve as an industry.

Professor Walsh-Childers admits there is no one-size-fits-all answer.

"Yeah, it is a real dilemma. This is not an easy thing for journalists to have to deal with. I always tell my students there are no easy '10 rules for being an ethical journalist.' It's hard work," said Walsh-Childers.

According to Walsh-Childers, as an industry, journalists have been critical of our coverage of other controversial topics in the past, and now is a time to re-evaluate once again.

"News organizations have changed the way they covered suicides. There was a growing body of evidence that the way we traditionally covered suicide was causing harm. There's also a growing body of evidence the way news organizations have traditionally covered mass shootings is causing harm, and therefore it is time for a change," said Walsh-Childers.

Professor Skewes agrees, saying that we should be taking more time to cover and fully understand these tragedies.

"This is an area where long-form journalism, in-depth journalism, can really serve the public in ways that events-driven coverage doesn't," said Skewes. "I think it is important to take that step back and do the longer-form think-pieces that really can inform the public about the trends rather than running from one event to the next to the next."

That's something Aaron Mason and the newsroom at WKBW are continuing to do in Buffalo.

"We assembled a panel of 6 people from cross-sections in the community, and we talked about where are we as a community a month later with mental health, with education," said Mason. "Let's have that uncomfortable conversation about race that nobody wants to have. If we're not going to have it now, after a self-proclaimed white supremacist came in this neighborhood and shot 10 Black people because they are Black, then when are we going to have it?"

We as journalists want you to know about the many factors and thoughtful conversations that go into bringing you, our viewers, what you need to know each and every day, especially when the story is not the easiest to hear. In our efforts, we will continue to strive for change and to generate meaningful coverage.

Mason puts it well:

"At the end of the day, we are a part of this community, and we want to make this community a better place and a safer place. How can we do that? We can do that by providing a platform to have conversations, to explore issues so that hopefully, something like this never happens again in our community."