Crime Coverage Summit Highlights: Covering Mass Shootings
By Erika Filter
National Press Foundation
Shimon Prokupecz covered the Brooklyn subway shooting, the George Floyd protests, the Pulse nightclub shooting, and the Uvalde shooting. He shared advice with Crime Coverage Summit fellows on how to push official sources to give truthful answers on crime stories as they develop.
1. Understand criminal procedure. Prokupecz said generally, police are the first sources to give journalists information on a crime that has occurred. However, police may be uncooperative with journalists. “It’s hard to scrutinize them,” he said. “They clearly don’t like it. They make it difficult to do, and it certainly makes our jobs tough to do it.” Therefore, it’s important for reporters to familiarize themselves with standard procedures in law enforcement and the criminal justice system so they know which questions to ask. “I think since George Floyd, we have all been trained in some ways to think differently about what the police tell us initially,” he said.
2. Find individual agency contacts. Prokupecz said for months after the Uvalde shooting, the Department of Public Safety would not return his calls or answer his questions. In September, he found out where the director, Steve McCraw, would be participating in a public hearing. He drove six hours to question McCraw on some documents. “Not only did we get him, we spent 40 minutes going back and forth,” he said. “It was just an incredible moment.” Since that meeting, the Department of Public Safety returns Prokupecz’s calls. “I now know that I have the goods and I have what I need and I’m not going to stop,” he said. “So much so that actually, McCraw will talk to me every time I see him.”
3. Stay on the story. Though resources can be limited, putting time into a story to get more details can be preferable to immediately broadcast a developing story. Prokupecz said in Uvalde, at first the public information officer was the only source communicating with journalists, and higher-ranking officials were unavailable. He said to keep pushing if the story being told doesn’t make sense. During the Uvalde shooting, “no one knew what was going on, but the little bits of information I was getting were raising all kinds of red flags for me,” Prokupecz said. “I knew something wasn’t making sense.” He said after a couple of days, he learned from family members of victims that police officers didn’t immediately enter the classroom. “There was this emotion that really took over, and it was a really tough time for me because you really got to see the families and you really got to see the pain that they were going through,” he said. “What was really so difficult for me also was the dishonesty from the police.” When the police department held a press conference, he and other reporters confronted the police on why they were giving bad information. “It was important for the families and the community who have been trying so hard for so long to get answers,” he said.
News directors should provide support whenever possible. Although that press conference was the last one given, CNN stayed onsite. Its reporting “led to some stunning developments,” Prokupecz said. “A school police force was suspended, people were fired…if it wasn’t for that support from our boss and from the bosses at CNN…I’m not sure any of that would’ve happened.”
4. What information does the public need to know? “Do we need to hear the gunshots of their kids being slaughtered in the classrooms? Do we need to show the gunman or report his name? These are serious considerations that I think news leaders need to make,” Prokupecz said. When covering the Uvalde shooting, Prokupecz and CNN respected the wishes of family members, choosing not to air footage of the gunman in the hallway or to broadcast his name. “If it’s going to trigger something in a victim or in a family member, don’t do it,” he said.
Similarly, not all reporting needs to be included in the final product—dedicating time to becoming familiar with the community can inform reporting without being televised. Prokupecz said one weekend after the Uvalde shooting, he and his producer went into the city without a photographer, spending time with family members. “As an outsider, learning about that community was so helpful,” he said, “but it also built this trust that has been so important in this story.”
Crime Coverage Summit 2023: Beyond ‘If It Bleeds, It Leads’ was sponsored by Arnold Ventures and hosted by NPF and RTDNA. This content originally appeared on the National Press Foundation’s website. You can view more of their content here.