Mass shootings carry a risk of aggrandizing coverage that has been known to contribute to contagion, mistakes and regrettable actions.
We offer the following things to consider for covering mass shootings and follow-up reporting:
- Journalists should keep their own safety in mind as they cover dangerous stories. They also need to make sure their actions do not put others, such as emergency responders, in harm’s way. Always assume the crime scene is active and act accordingly until public safety officials make an “all clear” announcement. Coverage plans may change if the shooter or shooters remain at-large.
- Journalists must include only relevant facts clearly attributed to credible sources. Rumors, unattributed statements, second-hand witness statements, and speculation should be avoided. As we have pointed out in our Covering Crime guidelines, crime stories, especially mass shootings can be complex and coverage will benefit from multiple angles and sources. Information from law enforcement should be vetted and supplemented with other sources to give consumers the full understanding of events. Be transparent with news consumers when law enforcement information is the only source available. The trauma of mass shootings can impact the first versions of the events we are presented. We encourage a thoughtful, thorough and respectful examination of the facts that are delivered to the media from law enforcement and others.
- Carefully evaluate those who claim to be witnesses. Respectfully ask where they were and what they were doing when they saw what they are describing. How far away were they? What were the conditions? Do not assume that anyone willing to talk with a journalist is telling the truth.
- Carefully evaluate all user-generated content, including phone calls, pictures, video and information before putting it on air or online. See RTDNA guidelines for using User-Generated Content.
- Be accurate and contextual. Small details can take on inappropriate levels of importance in early reporting when information is scant.
- Don’t get caught up in a numbers game. Early reports of the number of victims are frequently incorrect and may go up or down. Rely on trusted sources and don’t be afraid to make clear what you don’t know.
- Give serious thought to the frequency with which you mention the shooter’s name. Stories of the victims should be given much more weight than the story of the shooter. We recommend naming the shooter “infrequently and only when only [the] name is critical to understanding the story.”*
- In telling the stories of the victims, move beyond the harrowing details of the violence and spend more time telling the stories of their contributions. Celebrate their lives. Do not dwell on the horror.
- Use extreme caution when seeking out victims and survivors immediately after the event, particularly when dealing with children. Journalists should give pause to using normal social media techniques while reaching out to victims during these tragedies.
- Include fair, accurate and complete reporting on proposals to prevent mass shootings.
- Avoid sensational reporting and focus on contextual coverage. We recommend not broadcasting full audio or video of the killer’s ranting or publishing the full comments in a written manifesto. Summarizing the important material is far more useful than broadcasting the full versions, which may serve to propagate a killer’s bid for glory.
- Don’t look for simple causes to explain complex events. Multiple factors generally contribute to someone committing a mass shooting. Be careful not to focus on the search for a simple motive. It may not exist.
- Avoid speculating on the role of mental illness. Witnesses, law enforcement, and political leaders may know very little about the topic.*
- Avoid using images that glorify the shooter or shooters.* Do not make the villain a hero.
- After the initial coverage of the shooting drama, avoid photos of victims from the crime and instead focus on photos that show healing and community. Don’t add to community trauma.
- If possible, ask family and friends – even if they won’t agree to interviews – about preferred photos of victims, what names they used and other important details that might not be obvious or available from other sources.
- Avoid use of superlatives like “deadliest shooting ever” in teases, promos and tweets.* There has been research to suggest that mass shooters are motivated by previous events and attempts to be remembered. Our coverage should not add fuel to that.
- Consider the sensitivities of your community of news consumers.