(Not So) Basic Journalism Skills: Covering Tragedy

by - March 17, 2015

Working in news means covering the hard stuff. From shootings to crashes and even scandals, we're often on the front lines of stories that are difficult to watch much less cover. And it's not something you get a lot of practice doing in school. So inevitably you go out to cover your first fatal car crash, murder or deadly natural disaster and find yourself in an uncomfortable, awkward situation.

Learning how to cover a tragedy isn't like riding a bike. Every situation is different and no two people handle them the same way. If you've been in this business any length of time then you've no doubt already learned when it comes to sad stories most people view members of the media as vultures. That point of view makes it all the more difficult to cover tragic news stories.

Over the past 6 years, I've seen a lot of tragic stories, and because I work in what's considered a starter market for most journalists, I've seen how ill-prepared fresh-out-of-college reporters are when it comes to covering these type stories, especially the first time they go out. But don't worry - it does get better, if not easier.

Probably the biggest pieces of advice I can give you are these:
#1 - Do not approach a grieving family with your camera/recorder/notebook already out.
#2 - Be sympathetic, not empathetic.
#3 - Don't overstay your welcome.

The Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma offers many more tips for how to cover tragedy. Here are some of my favorite tips for interviewing victims:

  • Always treat victims with dignity and respect - the way you want to be treated in a similar situation.
  • You can say you're sorry for the person's loss, but never say "I understand" or "I know how you feel."
  • Don't start with the hardest questions.

One piece of advice that really stood out to me was this:
"Understand that your coverage of a traumatic event will have an impact on your readership, viewers or listeners. Remember that the tone of your coverage may reflect the tone of the community's reaction to it."
I think oftentimes young journalists don't truly understand the impact our coverage of certain events has on the communities we cover. Our coverage can also influence events as they're happening. That's why it's so important that we are prepared for every possibility, not just on an individual level but as a newsroom. The Dart Center says it best:
"Understand that you may be the first to arrive at any scene. You may face dangerous situations and harsh reactions from law enforcement and the public."
Just remember to stay calm, focused and alert. If a situation becomes dangerous, leave. Your camera or press badge won't keep you from getting injured. And in the end, your life is more important.

Covering difficult stories isn't something you just leave at the station. You may have to flip the switch on your feelings/emotions while you're covering these stories, but there are some things that will stay with you forever. Remember to take care of yourself. Don't let the stresses of the job overtake your life. Step away from it every now and then. Find someone to talk to, whether that be a friend or a professional. Don't become too immersed in the sadness and hurt.

It would be great if death weren't such a big part of this job, but when it comes to news the saying "if it bleeds it leads" really is true. For all their complaints that the news doesn't cover enough nice stories, those stories about death are the ones people most want to know about.

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