Lessons learned from covering Newtown, Connecticut shootings

Jan 15, 2013

Newtown, Conn. First Selectwoman Patricia Llodra
Credit Craig LeMoult

It’s been a month since a shooter killed 20 schoolchildren, 6 school staff, his mother and himself in Newtown, Connecticut. I coordinated WSHU Public Radio coverage of the shootings and the aftermath.  Though we had covered our share of crises -- severe weather, industrial accidents -- this event touched us and challenged our 9-person newsroom in new ways.  I hope our experience can be helpful to other news directors.

Ten things I learned from covering the Newtown shootings:

  • Coordinate.  Always have at least one person at the studio to coordinate with reporters,  other news outlets, and keep management in the loop.  Don’t forget that field reporters, although close to the action, are often isolated from the bigger picture. Keeping them filled in on the bigger news is critical as they are writing and filing.  Less experienced staff can be helpful too, in researching, posting stories and assisting with coordination.
    Watch people rise to the occasion!
  • Have stuff ready.  Field kits, laptops, wifi cards, apps, backup kits, batteries, chargers, snacks, water.  If reporting is happening far from home and/or transportation is compromised, a sleeping bag and change of clothes.
  • Manage calls coming in from all over the world.   We heard constantly from BBC affiliates (at least half a dozen shows/stations) , South Africa,  Brazil, Italy, US public radio stations, etc. Be prepared and judge whether your reporters want to and can reply. And don’t forget that some of these calls are at very inconvenient hours. My reporters were getting some calls in the middle of the night.  We found ourselves correcting a lot of rumors, and felt good about serving a greater audience hungry for information.
  • Move resources aroundcycle reporters in and out. Give them a rest. A couple of days of intense reporting is exhausting, physically and emotionally. And they are often needed at home during an emergency.  
  • Be creative…use the whole staff.  In the case of Newtown, we found that one of our development people lived across the street from one of the victims. Someone we had lined up for a Q and A unrelated to the shootings happened to live in Newtown and offered a very thoughtful interview. Our general manager came in on the weekend and helped with production.
  • Coordinate with NPR. and watch how they do it. In many breaking news cases, NPR sets up a mailing list for the team covering the story. If the event warrants it, local stations are included. For Newtown, anytime someone heard something or had a question about rumors or news, or needed coverage, a quick message on the mailing list was very effective. In the case of Newtown, NPR had reporters, and editor and a producer in the region for the first several days, as well as a coordinator in DC. If and how local reporters are worked into the mix is on a case by case basis.
  • Take advantage of opportunities for collaboration. The day after the shooting, we co-hosted two live call-ins with neighboring public radio stations (WNYC and WNPR) .  We were able to reach a wider audience and serve listeners better by collaborating. And I hope that’s not the last of our new partnerships.  Also, I will never forget the kind words and offers of support we received from news directors outside of our area.
  • Use your gut and watch the ethics.  If talking with victims’ relatives doesn’t feel right, don’t do it.  It’s OK to distinguish your news outlet by what you won’t do, in addition to how you do what you do. At some point, it became clear that the people of Newtown needed less media. We backed off.
  • Get help for reporters and other staff who look like they’re stressed after the crisis is over. There were so many difficult things we faced…..the overwhelming sadness, the goriness, the guilt (“why should I be stressed out? I didn’t see the shootings or know anyone who was shot.”). And it’s not only the reporters in the field. Don’t forget that editors and hosts are writing and hearing stories over and over and over. That alone is so difficult. And when a disaster of any sort touches the community, everyone who works for the station is affected. Watch them carefully. Offer counseling to the whole staff. Offer praise and support. Make time for sitting around and reflecting.
  • When it’s over, take notes and start planning how the next one can go even better. Enlist engineers and producers to solve technical problems. It’s a good moment to appeal for additional resources. Save audio and scripts for debriefs and contests. There’s a very helpful resource to use as you plan: SAFERstations.org,  a joint project of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters (NFCB) and NPR.   The site includes an emergency preparedness manual, links to resources and social media guidelines. It was originally published in 2011. NPR’s Gemma Hooley tells me she’s looking at ways to refresh  some of the content.