What did we need to know during the shooting?

Part 2 of our series on how the media covered the tragedy at King Soopers

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For part one of this series, go here.

Before the shooting had ceased at King Soopers on March 22, there was a livestream on YouTube of it. Within minutes of the stream going live, viewers could see people on the ground and hear gunshots in the store, and, eventually, watch police escort the cameraman behind caution tape as they worked to secure the area. (Despite the expletive-laden claims of the person livestreaming the shooting that he’s a journalist, the Constitution does not necessarily afford the right to members of the press to be in a crime scene.)

The livestream can still be accessed on YouTube; the company justified that decision to The Guardian, saying that content that has “sufficient news or documentary context” can remain on the platform.

It’s a unique aspect of the Boulder shooting — that it was filmed and broadcast live without any context — but it’s just a microcosm of a larger debate about the role and responsibilities the media (national, local and “citizen journalists”) have in covering mass shootings. What do we as community members — and the rest of the country — need to see and hear in the immediate moments during and following a mass shooting?

“The livestreaming and the live tweets actually pose some immense ethical challenges, because what the public actually needs, what those in the store need, what those on the scene need, is safety,” says Bruce Shapiro, executive director of Columbia University’s Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, which encourages innovative reporting on violence around the world. “What the public needs in that super breaking news phase is accuracy.”

In fact, the Boulder Police tweeted during the event that people should not “broadcast on social media any tactical information you might see” because of the potential it had to alert the shooter to police activities and the locations of other potential victims. Elizabeth Skewes, chair of the CU journalism department, sees the value in documenting events as they happen, but questions the benefit of doing so without editing, such as in a livestream.

“If somebody records something like that, maybe it is documentary, but I don’t think you have to livestream it,” she says. “I don’t see the value in giving people chaotic, haphazard info, especially about something like this. … The fact people were seeing victims lying on the ground, it strikes me as voyeuristic and disrespectful. If you feel the need to record as a citizen journalist, record, but take a look at what needs to be published out to the world.

“This wasn’t a case where livestreaming it saved lives or saved people; they knew something awful was happening there and to stay away from the area,” Skewes adds.

And yet, many national and local media outlets linked to the livestream, or used photos and video from it in their coverage. Doesn’t the inclusion of that content condone the ethically questionable manner in which it was gathered? And if these media organizations provide the crucial step of editing — so unidentified dead bodies aren’t included, and time elapses so police and bystanders are no longer in danger — is it fair game to run the footage?

Maybe answering those ethical questions around the livestream are up to the viewers themselves. Generally speaking, though, Shapiro and Skewes say network media companies are using more care than they used to when it comes to identifying shooters and victims, and picking the right images to put into stories. Skewes says, over time, media companies began to ask (and answer) questions like, “Should we be covering this so family members are seeing this in the news before they get a knock on the door from somebody in law enforcement?”

But in a world “full of news without any act of journalism being committed,” as Shapiro says, where Twitter is mired in half-truths and outright lies, it’s important in the moment, during a mass shooting or another acute tragedy, to be accurate. 

“My view is the news sites that have the luxury of being a little more thoughtful or being more rigorous, the faster the news cycle is going, the higher the life-and-death stakes, the more important it is to slow down and not take the bait,” he says. “Because the consequences of missing something or getting it wrong are so huge.”

For instance, coverage of the Columbine shooting was rife with mentions of the shooters’ associations with a so-called “trench coat mafia,” a group of goth kids supposedly out for revenge on popular kids. But it was a myth, at once an exaggeration and an oversimplification of the shooters’ motives, and Shapiro says that twisted the conversation in a way that had nothing to do with the root cause of the shooting. Other errors in previous shootings include misidentifying suspects and victims, as was the case at Sandy Hook, when the shooter’s brother was misidentified by news outlets as the perpetrator. NPR first reported Gabby Giffords died when she was shot at a public event.

Other ethical questions arise in the moments during and immediately after a mass shooting, and long-lasting ramifications depend on the answers. For instance, before the Virginia Tech shooting, the shooter sent his manifesto to NBC, which had to decide whether or not to publish it. After wrestling with the decision, it ultimately decided on a limited released, broadcasting parts of the video and publishing parts of the text once, and then with heightened scrutiny in the future — but you can still access it all after five minutes of internet searching.

As Shapiro says, even if the decision was to publish it once and then never again, the internet can circulate things so fast, it quickly becomes no longer one media company’s decision whether to unpublish something or not. And the danger is that in the media’s haste to publish anything related to a shooting in the immediate aftermath, those materials could live online forever and become repeated viewing for those on the fringe who might have thoughts of committing similar atrocities.

All of this isn’t to say that there isn’t a valid argument to be made about documenting events without a filter. Nightly images of the carnage in Vietnam changed the perception of that war, anecdotally at least. And Mamie Till famously wanted an open casket so the world could see what racial violence, bigotry and hatred did to her son. 

Plus, both Skewes and Shapiro say, people who have lost loved ones in a mass shooting, or who have survived one, may feel a need to tell their stories. But do they need a camera shoved in their face 20 minutes after the shooting ends?

“My grandma taught me the do-unto-others rule, it’s a simple one,” Skewes says. “If I was going through that, would I want a reporter asking me questions? Probably not. Journalists need to tread carefully because in the immediacy of the moment, family members are grieving and they’ve been stunned by this awful thing that has happened. … The kind of information you might get, it might be useful. You get hobbies, what the person was like. It’s helpful, I suppose, but is it worth the potential harm? Probably not.”

Says Shapiro: “You can see the anger and distress that people have when they see the satellite trucks take over a town and then go away. … One of the big things with traumatic events is losing a sense of your own safety. The bigfoot media sometimes acts in a way that amplifies that loss of control. That’s an accelerant on distress. It makes ‘The Media’ an easy focal point for anger. On the other hand, it’s also true that people want and need their stories attended to and reported on.”

Covering a mass shooting as it happens can also have negative impacts on the mental health of journalists. Research indicates as much — a Finnish study found 10% of journalists experienced PTSD after covering the Japanese tsunami, whereas 30% of journalists reported mental health issues after a shooting in Uotya, Norway, in 2011.

Looking forward, the media chaos that ensues when a mass shooting happens may actually have longer lasting impacts, hampering the ability of local journalists to do impactful work in the future.  

“In every single case,” Shapiro says of previous shootings, “the national media comes in and then goes away and often wrecks carefully cultivated local relationships; everyone comes to hate ‘The Media.’” 

Local reporters who work with the cops, courts and local government may have to work harder to restore trust based on the actions of outside media, Shapiro says. But getting through those obstacles, repairing relationships and sticking with the story is the value local media brings to events like these.

In fact, it’s stories from local news outlets that might affect real change and serve communities best in the long run. Stories that require reporters to connect with families that want to talk about loved ones. Investigations into what happened that led to the shooting (and thus, find solutions to prevent the next one). Tracking changes in the community as a response to the tragedy. And so next week, in the final part of this series, we’ll look at how the current media playbook of covering mass shooting impacts a community’s ability to move forward.  

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