Covering the unthinkable

Tips for the story no one wants to handle

Posted

Two weeks after 17 people died in the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., Julie Anderson joined the South Florida Sun Sentinel as editor-in-chief. In her first conversation with her managing editor, Anderson asked how the staff was doing.

"Really be mindful that your reporters and your editors are going to be traumatized," Anderson said. "Maybe not all of them, but they're first responders, too."

Anderson was at The Orlando Sentinel when that paper covered the mass shooting at Pulse nightclub. In 2017, the Sentinel was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in breaking news.

She offers the following tips to other newspapers that have to deal with school shootings and other mass casualty events:

  • "Make sure you have your best writer, your coolest customer, anchoring and corralling everything." The Sun Sentinel, with more than 50 reporters, has organized into teams with each reporter assigned to cover specific elements of the aftermath of the Parkland shooting.
  • Create a database of all contacts and contact information the staff might need, from police to victims' families to clergy. Make the information available to everyone. Keep communicating in the newsroom to ensure that multiple reporters aren't calling the same people.
  • "It's really important to establish contacts early with victims' families and the students, because you're going to have to go back to them again and again." Assign the most empathetic reporters to this sensitive coverage.
  • "Give the students your platform." The Sun Sentinel published an edition of the student newspaper, inserted it in home delivery copies and posted it online.
  • "Your lawyer is your friend. Start getting those public records as soon as possible." The Sun Sentinel has gone to court, seconded by the Miami Herald and CNN, to get additional video of the controversial police response from outside security cameras. It is also trying to get school records on the shooter. Anderson emphasizes that her paper is not trying to get video from inside the school.
  • Keep checking on the well-being of your news staff. "In Orlando we lost four journalists who basically quit after six months," Anderson said. Two of them had covered other mass shootings, one in Sandy Hook, Conn., and one in Aurora, Colo. Some reporters who were working 80-hour weeks had to be ordered to take time off. After the Santa Fe shooting, Anderson was concerned that it might trigger post-traumatic stress for Sun Sentinel employees, and she reminded them to take advantage of the company employee assistance program.

For more information, contact janderson@sunsentinel.com.


Jane Nicholes

Jane Nicholes is a veteran journalist based in coastal Alabama and is a regular contributor to SNPA. Reach her at jbnicholes@att.net.

Suggestions for future stories and comments on this piece are welcomed.

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