On May 18, 2018, in the Houston metro, still recovering from Hurricane Harvey eight months prior, news broke of another tragedy. A shooting at Santa Fe High School, nestled about halfway between downtown Houston and the Gulf of Mexico just to the south, left eight students and two teachers dead and thirteen others injured.
The KHOU news team, working from a temporary studio after its building was destroyed during Harvey, sprung into action. The newsroom’s breaking news coverage that day earned it a national Murrow Award.
We talked to News Director Sally Ramirez about what went into the clear, comprehensive and compelling coverage, and how the community remains changed just over a year later.
A big breaking story like this means all hands on deck – how did the team stay on same page? What tools and processes does the newsroom use?
We have a breaking news plan with very specific roles for each of our screens and platforms. For the Santa Fe school shooting, we were working out of our makeshift one-room newsroom, so communication was easier in that we were all in one small room. But communicating, over communicating, is critical.
“Point people,” as we call them, are essential to ensuring the same information is relayed at the same time to digital, social, the control room and field crews.
We set up a special Slack channel to communicate internally and within our TEGNA stations.
While one team works on the here and now, another group is working on future content, like a newscast or special. The investigative team kicks in immediately to work sources, pull background information and any pertinent public records.
One of the most important things we do as well is make sure a few of us watch and read our coverage as it’s happening. It’s important that we experience what the audience is experiencing in real time.
What kind of planning and preparation does the newsroom do for breaking news? I noticed in particular the calm but firm tone everyone used – is that something that was talked about before?
KHOU News Anchor Mia Gradney, who was on the anchor desk that day, weighed in here:
Tone is a constant discussion, driven by our news director, Sally Ramirez, especially among talent. We know in times of crisis and uncertainty people are looking for a calm and credible voice to see them through a major disaster or tragedy. We always remember the sensitivity of the situation and respect the people with our approach to the tragedy.
Any breaking news situation comes with ethical questions, but especially this one. What conversations were taking place off air about interviewing students and about using video from Snapchat, for example?
We respect our viewers just as much as we respect the journalism process. It is our responsibility to exercise integrity above all else and to find a way to disseminate information in a moral and respectful way. When it comes to students or any minor, we always talk about who we can/cannot put on air, online or stream. When possible, we ask for the parent’s permission and include the parent in the interview. Then, we make it a point to let the audience know that by saying something like, “X and his/her mom/dad are here with us and want to share their story.” We also discuss whether we just use their voice and not show their face. We are very transparent about what we do and why we do it.
When it comes to social videos, first we make sure they are authentic. Then, we have conversations about what to use and how to use it. Just because we have something, and can use it, doesn’t always mean it’s the right thing to do.
This breaking news coverage stood out especially for the Verify segment. In breaking news situations as we all know, rumors tend to fly to fill the information void as we’re still learning the facts. What was the listening process to see what those conversations were, and what was the though process for deciding what pieces of rumor or speculation to verify/debunk?
Our team assigned to social listening alerts us to any and all audience questions. We look at themes that keep popping up.
Verify is designed to fact check. It is journalism at its core yet simplified.
In the case of the Santa Fe shooting, we wanted the audience to know we too had heard the rumors that many were posting as fact. But, they were just that, rumors. We always want the audience to know we are working on their behalf to confirm or debunk what is being circulated on social media. We want to be their trusted source for information.
That day was such a difficult one for the Houston community and must have been in the newsroom too. What did the news team do to take care of each other during and in the aftermath of that day’s breaking coverage?
Personally, I always stress journalists are people too. It’s important to remember we are impacted by what happens in our community. We experience a lot of what first responders experience.
I try to check in regularly to see how the crews are doing mentally. Our news and station leadership constantly remind the staff that we are here for them to talk to, cry with, and to lean on each other. We also provide TEGNA resources, like counseling, for those emotionally challenging situations.
How is the newsroom and the community doing now, just over a year later?
Through events like this one, we grow closer together both with our viewers and as a team. A tragedy like Santa Fe is forever with you.
As we approached the one-year mark of the shooting, we asked a number of our colleagues who covered the story if they wanted the station to bring in counselors.
On the content side, we went back one year later and spent about three months with the community. We produced a half-hour special documenting Santa Fe’s tragedy, but highlighting their resiliency. We also produced a 6-part podcast. Using that platform was intentional. A lot of people were reluctant to appear on camera, but much more open to sharing their stories in a format that allowed for longer, more personal conversations.
Murrow Mondays are a look behind-the-scenes of Murrow Award winning journalism.