Thursday, February 13, 2014

Media Decision Making during a School Shooting: A Case Study

By Julie Bowman

The Columbine school shooting was the first to unfold live on television.  Within minutes, news media were interrupting programing to broadcast the news of what was happening.  Unfortunately, at such an early stage of the event, no one really knew for sure what was going on.  The television broadcast news media faces some very tough decisions about what to air.  There are graphic images to sort out, live interviews that may or may not contain the truth, and information that may, perhaps, need to be protected for both victims’ privacy and the ground operations being conducted by public safety officials.  As the events unfolded that day, news departments around the Denver metro area made mistakes, and some would even say they created the rule book for how not to cover such an event.  Media should always use four decision-making criteria when determining what to air.  This criterion includes timeliness in providing information, accuracy of the information provided, it should not interfere with ground operations, and the media should always remember to protect the rights of the victim.  While the status quo is a viable alternative, there are better choices.  News media can broadcast on a short time delay, they can only air information during a crisis that pertains to public safety that the viewer has an immediate need to know, and they can work together with the first responder community to gain a better relationship that helps both the media and emergency officials.  It will take a paradigm shift on the part of the media to accomplish these recommendations, but in the end, the media will receive less criticism for their actions and they will be a help rather than a hindrance in a crisis.  

Description of the Case
The Columbine high school shooting disaster in Littleton, Colorado, is known by most people simply as “Columbine”.    How can anyone forget the clear, sunny spring day in April 1999, when two high school students dressed in black toting weapons wreaked havoc on a suburban Denver school, in the end, killing thirteen as well as themselves (JCSO, 1999)?  It began as a quiet news day by most accounts, but Patti Dennis, the news director at Denver’s KUSA Channel 9, felt something was brewing, although she had no idea what that might be, she told her production staff just that (Shepard, ND ).  Within three hours, the media would be covering what would become one of the biggest news stories in the history of broadcast journalism in the Denver area (Barber, 2009).   

The Issue
School shootings and other mass shootings have become a major topic in our society (Maguire, Weatherby, & Mathers, 2002).  When these events occur, the public turns to the media for information.  As a result, the more violent the crime, the more attention it receives (Maguire et al, 2002).  The television news media has to make tough decisions about what to put on the air as a story unfolds during a live broadcast.  Because of the nature of television news and the sheer volume of cameras at this particular scene, there were graphic images, interviews with juveniles, and the myths that evolved into truths as the day went on.  When the identity of the gunmen was uncovered, a decision had to be made whether or not to air their names. There were live calls coming into the news stations themselves with people wanting to tell their stories from inside the school.  What is the appropriate way to cover a story of this nature when the public is viewing live?  What questions should reporters ask traumatized teens?  Should news anchors conduct on-air interviews with victims hiding inside the school calling on cell phones?  What do you show?  What don’t you show (Shepard, ND)?  

Data Analysis
In part, these problems occurred because the story was unfolding so rapidly.  News media began picking up on radio traffic via scanner as early as 11:20 a.m.  Not long after that, the three major Denver stations began breaking in to local programming to inform the public of the shooting (Barber, 2009).  The news helicopters were filming images of the outside of the school where several victims lay.  News stations had to determine which of these images should make it on television.  With so many people covering the story, it was a race to get the information out first.  One station had film of paramedics checking on two of the victims outside the cafeteria and walking away from them.  Wisely, the station did not air that footage (Shepard,  ND).  About two hours into the event, a student who had been shot in the head while in the library had made his way to the windows.  He was intent on breaking out a window and escaping (JCSO, 1999).  News helicopters saw the student in the window and began filming him.  Many of the communication centers involved in the incident were watching the coverage and relayed information about the student to commanders on the ground.  Those on the ground, with the assistance of an armored vehicle, were able to approach the library and ultimately safely evacuate the subject.  Watching the scene was horrific and the student could easily be identified by anyone who knew him.  While it made for an exciting news scene, imagine the horror his family and friends must have felt if they were watching.  Was this appropriate to air?  At that moment, at least one news station decided it was.  
The NBC affiliate, KUSA Channel 9, received a call from an individual clearly upset and wanting to speak with someone about the event.  He was a student from the school who had made it out and was safe.  Channel 9 put the individual on the air live with the anchors who tried to illicit information from the caller.  The interview quickly changed into the anchors trying to console the individual, finally directing him to go speak with his parents. (Barber, 2009).  While this call was legitimate, KUSA later took two calls live that turned out to be fake.  When asked if she made the right decision about putting these people on the air, News Director Patti Dennis stated, “It was one of those decisions we could have made smarter.  Now, I would have talked to him, debriefed him, taped him and thought about it” (as quoted in Barber, 2009).  
Plenty of myths came from the ongoing news reporting that day and in the months that followed.  Everyone was looking for a different angle on the story, and there were plenty of people willing to provide information – accurate or otherwise.  As Dave Cullen, Author of Columbine writes, “The Trench Coat Mafia was mythologized because it was colorful, memorable, and fit the existing myth of the school shooter as outcast loner.  All of the Columbine myths worked that way.  And they all sprang to life incredibly fast—most of the notorious myths took root before the killers’ bodies were found” (2009, p. 149).  Those who are close to the case, investigators, prosecutors, and victim’s families no longer believe the myths, but the public seems to take them as truth (Cullen, 2009).  Much of the media argues that with the amount of chaos and the number of witnesses at Columbine, it would be impossible to get all the facts straight.  Interestingly, most of the myths that came out of Columbine all had a shred of truth, but the fact that the news media latched on to the myths as they came out caused more and more people to believe the myths.  One example is that early on, only a handful of students had mentioned the Trench Coat Mafia and possibly responsible for the shooting.  Once the news media began reporting their involvement, a rapidly increasing number of kids began to believe the information and believed it to be true because the new had reported it that way (Cullen, 2009).  The rapid unfolding of the story along with the myths that were coming out of the event created an environment in which the Denver television news media had never before found themselves.  Normal fact checking seemed to fly out the window, resulting in incorrect information going out as factual.    
Key Decision Criteria
There are four primary decision making criteria to be analyzed.  These criteria are:
1. Timeliness:  Is the public getting needed information in a timely manner?
2. Accuracy:  Is the information the media is putting out to the public accurate and verified?
3. Non-interfering:  Is the information the media broadcasts interfering in any way with the ability of the public safety officials and other first responders to do their job?
4. Protection of Rights:  Are the actions the media is taking protective of the rights of the victims in the situation?

Alternatives Analysis
The alternatives to be examined in this situation are:
1. Maintain the status quo.  Change nothing about how media reports on breaking stories of this magnitude.  They are doing the best they can with the information they receive and the public has a right to know what is going on.
2. Work on a short time delay.  Rather than airing raw news film and airing cell phone calls live, delay putting out information to the public for a period of thirty seconds or a minute.  During this delay, media will have the opportunity to evaluate potential problematic issues.  While this promotes accuracy, better protects the rights of the victims and is less likely to interfere with public safety operations, timeliness is impacted in a negative manner.
3. Air only the things that the public needs to know for their safety.  While the news media’s focus is not public safety, in this kind of a situation, public safety should be one of their top concerns.  Timeliness is important, but accuracy of information is paramount to the safety of the public.  The general public does not need to know how many people were shot or where inside the building they were shot and this kind of information could compromise the emergency operations.  Walking up and shoving a microphone in the face of a traumatized student for a live sound bite is not protective of that person’s rights.     
4. Through a consortium of news media and public safety officials, create a method that helps the news media perform their job accurately and timely without interfering with emergency personnel.  This procedure should set standards of how and when to conduct interviews with people on or fleeing the scene.  After an event of this nature, these same officials should sit together and evaluate how news coverage was provided and how things could improve.

There is no easy solution to the problem that exists.  “The reporting of school shooting cases on network newscasts reflects the “herd mentality” nature of the media” (Maguire et al, 2002).  In order to provide an environment wherein timely, accurate, and non-interfering news coverage can take place while at the same time protect the rights of those involved, media outlets are facing a total paradigm shift.  This paradigm shift will need to include several alternatives.  One thing is certain, the status quo is not the answer.  A good policy the news media should follow would include working on a short time delay, and as the Channel 9’s News Director indicated, vet, tape and think (Barber, 2009).  It would be in the best interest of the media and public safety officials to sit down together and discuss the ways the media can help and the ways they hinder in these situations.  As events are unfolding, the media should consider working on a delay.  This will resolve the problem of fake calls that media outlets encountered and will prevent graphic footage the public doesn’t need to see from being aired.  It will also provide the media with a chance to cross check and verify information better.  Because a reporter cannot control what an interviewee may say live, the brief delay will allow stations to not only cross check the information they provide, but also they will be able to control what is aired.  This will cut down on the myths that are propagated by the media.  The media should also refrain from interviewing juveniles without their parent’s consent, and they should also refrain from airing names of both victims and perpetrators before officials have formally released that information.      
Action and Implementation Plan
First and foremost, the media and public safety officials need to work together during school shootings and related incidents or disasters.  Open communication between the two is necessary for this to happen, and it should happen before the disaster strikes.  The first step to be taken is for the parties to meet together and create guidelines under which both sides can agree to operate.  Next, the media will need to make policy changes within their organizations and in some cases, train their employees about the changes.  The media should adopt the position they are the conduit of necessary information during the unfolding of the crisis, and wait until the crisis is winding down before airing special interest stories.  It is also necessary for the media to put in place a policy of fully interviewing and debriefing subjects before they air interviews.  This will protect the victims as well as protect the reputation of the media in many cases.  All of this will take buy-in on the part of the media and it won’t be easy.  Perhaps the best way to view the situation from behind the news desk is to think about how you would want information disseminated if it was your child in the school.  

Barber, L. (2009). Failures in the media during Columbine shooting. Retrieved from
Cullen, Dave. (2009). Columbine. New York, NY: Hachette Book Group
Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office (JCSO). (2000, May). The Final Report of the Columbine Incident.  Retrieved from
Maguire, B., Mathers, R.A., & Weatherby, G.A. (2002). Network news coverage of school
shootings. The Social Science Journal, 39, 465-470. doi: 10.1016/S0362-3319(02)
Sheperd, A. (1999).  Covering the big one. The American Journalism Review. Retrieved from 

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