EIJ16 session: Media coverage of mass murders

September 18, 2016 03:00

By Shaynah Ferreira, RTDNA News

The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics states the following: “Minimize harm, but be compassionate and transparent.”

In the wake of the more than four dozen mass shootings America has watched covered since 1999, ethics and responsibility have been two hallmark qualities that have come into question for journalists of all platforms.

At Excellence of Journalism 2016, a session focused on how well the media covers mass murders and what journalists can do to do the most good in difficult situations.

This year’s panel of three have vast experience in coverage of tragedies but also the important role journalists play in shaping the narrative we watch both on air and in print.

Moderator and WDSU anchor, Casey Ferrand said, “the goal of the session is to give journalists a way to understand how to ethically and morally cover these shootings. While the death toll changes, the impact is the same: wide spread shock and sadness.”

So how do journalists accurately, fairly and humanely report such tragedies?

One of the panelists was Tom Teves, the co-founder of the non-profit organization, “No Notoriety.” He spoke candidly as not only a panelist but also as a father of one of the victims killed in the Aurora movie theatre. “Journalism has a purpose,” says Teves. “We have to figure out what the standards are and what the lines are. As news organizations, you should have a conversation about responsible coverage.”

Teves’ organization notably advocates against news outlets broadcasting the name and pictures of the killers in mass shootings multiple times. They also appeal for humanizing the victim, rather than the shooter.

“The shooters almost always want attention. Don’t give it to them.” He continued, “My son was laying down in that theatre for hours and hours and we knew nothing. Yet when we turned on the TV all we saw were dramatic images and footage of police breaking down the door of the shooter. But not once in those hours did we hear anything about the victims." Teves says journalists should think of the families affected and make strides to attempt to understand how a parent or loved one would feel watching or reading their coverage.

Andrew Seaman, SPJ Ethics Chair, encouraged journalists to “get yourself out of the head of a journalist and try to put it into the head of a human. Empathy is an incredible and powerful tool to use when you’re reporting."

Emily Lane, a reporter from NOLA.com and The Times-Picayune, covered the Lafayette Movie Theatre Shooting in July of 2015. As she said, “It’s always good to be transparent with our reporting, it’s good to put data to use and not allow bias to lead to assumptions.”

Lane talked about assumptions made in the media during the coverage of mass murders, which has become more challenging because much of the coverage seen on the air is video and photos often pulled from social media sites like Twitter and Facebook.

Lane cautions journalists be conscious of the photos that are selected to run online site or newscasts. “We have to be conscious of the pictures we post. We have to be careful. We tend to report White shooting suspects as mentally ill... and run very old photos of them. It tends to shift the narrative; as opposed to the way we report Muslim shooting suspects and even Black suspects.”

As a non-profit, “No Notoriety” has been a voice in the national coverage of shootings since 2012 and has prompted news outlets to think critically of their coverage of the shooters, and more importantly the victims. “ Your job counts down to the number of times you mention a shooters name. We’re not looking for your money or your pity, we just want you to be responsible journalists."