I know this isn’t going to be a popular blog with my news friends. The mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida happened around 2:40p on Valentine’s Day. In the time I turned on the news in the car to listen, then watch at home, I heard no less than 10 interviews with students, live on the air, before dinnertime.
As someone who has been in a newsroom when major news breaks; I’ve lived it. I get the rush for information, the competition, and the chaos that surrounds these moments. I know how hard all of this is when a newsroom is in the weeds. Stepping back, I wonder if it’s wise to keep putting children on live television for a few reasons.
This is not a video game, and they are in shock. Listening to one freshman describe the incident on a national cable outlet, his speech was almost flat. When asked by the anchor how he was doing, the 15 year old’s response was “perfect”. It struck me cold. He spoke for about five minutes and it was clear he began truly absorbing what he saw, including dead bodies, under a tarp. When asked by the anchor whether he knew if they were children or adults, he said one of each, a male adult because he was more “formally dressed”, and a female student, because she wasn’t “formally dressed”. Which leads me to my next point…
These aren’t confirmed facts. And we’re letting these children give a narrative of what they think they saw happen. What they say can easily be construed as confirmed information in the course of breaking news coverage, yet it isn’t. Period. They are CHILDREN who have just experienced a day that will change the trajectory of their lives forever, and media outlets letting them fill airtime with information that isn’t confirmed is irresponsible.
Does this help fuel the next mass shooting? We really should consider who is watching the coverage. Is the next person who plans something like this watching for the raw emotions of these children to gauge the impact?
I had a boss once who told me to never come to him with a problem, unless I came with a solution too. Good advice, but hard to do in this situation. I’m not sure there is ever going to really be a solution, but I’ll offer some suggestions.
Screen the cell phone video before putting on-air. I do think it’s important for us to see the video that news crews just can’t get themselves and the students take on their cell phones. I agree with the CBS spokesperson who tells the Washington Post, “We think it is important to not conceal the horror of tragic events as we report on them, although we have been careful to add a warning about the graphic nature of the video so that viewers can watch it at their own discretion.”
It is video of true carnage and horror, and may be one of the only ways to show those that can impact change how devastating these events are in the moment they are happening.
Put the interview on tape. If it’s valuable to the story, if it’s true after a few hours, then it can air.
Decide now as a newsroom how this plays out next time. Because we know this will happen again, now is a good time to speak with your team and discuss the parameters of what happens next time. When reporters would call in to news managers and ask if they could use interviews from a student, our first question was always, “How old are they?” Too young, and/ or without their parents, we’d always say no for a few reasons- the liability of not having their parents permission, whether or not they could be considered credible, and most importantly, whether we would be exploiting the child.
If you have a plan in place, and the entire newsroom understands it, then once that scanner buzzes the next time, you’re committed to your plan and can focus your coverage.
Side note: The crisis professional in me suggests that all organizations, schools, business, etc. determine a media staging area for their buildings in advance, and it shouldn’t be in front of the building.