Sunday, October 12, 2014

Reporting On A Tragedy

Katy Andersen

When a tragic event occurs, there’s a race between media outlets to see who can break the story.  However, when reporting on tragic events, the journalist should keep in mind that someone’s world has been completely altered.  A journalist with any ethical values knows that you have to approach and report these types of stories with care. Unfortunately, ethics can be easily forgotten when there’s pressure to be the first to bring the news to the public.

One of the hardest parts for the reporter is to get an interview immediately after a tragic event.  Interviews are vital to tell all sides of the story and to capture the emotion of the situation.  The closest people to the situation are usually the relatives, close friends or witnesses of the scene.  However, those who just experienced tragedy might still be having a hard time making of sense of it.  The last thing they are prepared for is a stranger in their face with a microphone and camera.  Unfortunately, ambitious journalists have been compared to a predator stalking its prey.

While some victims prefer to be left alone, others are grateful for the opportunity to share their thoughts and have input on the story.  Our job as journalists is to provide an outlet for that person and to do so with little to no harm.  We also want to create a forum for the community to be able to come together.   

When a journalist is able to get an interview, he or she should keep these considerations in mind: 

Timing – Timing is everything in that you want to get the information quickly but also be considerate of the circumstances.  Be on the scene as soon as possible and determine who is the most credible source.  You can get the basic facts from the officials on the scene but get the emotion from witnesses involved. Know when to back off when your subject is fragile.

Identify Yourself – Let them know who you are, who you represent, why you’re there, why you want to share their story, and how you want to help them.

Questions - Be respectful and careful with wording.  Don’t ask anything ridiculously obvious.  Don’t start off the interview with difficult, in-depth questions or overwhelm the victim.

Listening – Listen to what they’re actually telling you.  You might go in to the interview thinking one thing but the interviewee can completely change the story.  It is important to say that you are sorry for their loss but never say things like “I understand” or “I know how you feel” because that minimizes their loss or experience.

Know the Facts – It is extremely important that no matter what story you’re working on, you get the facts straight.  When you’re in a hurry, it is easy to get facts wrong or to tell half of the story.  But especially when reporting a tragedy, if you should misreport the facts, you can also cause even more harm to the victims.

When compiling a news story, be careful of the footage you use.  Remember who might suffer consequences from seeing the video: family members, friends, and the community.  You want to show your viewers what happened but you also don’t want to traumatize people. 

Remember all of these tips when reporting in the midst of a tragedy.  The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma wrote a guide for journalist reporting on tragedies.  Click here to view the guide.  

Below is a video of CNN journalist talking about their experience and feelings while reporting on the Sandy Hook Shootings. 

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