Since 2010 there have been more than 50 incidents of mass violence that include the deadliest on record. Over the course of those horrific events, public radio newsrooms coordinated immediate coverage of those incidents and their aftermaths over weeks, months and years.
Among the mass shootings PRNDI member stations have covered include Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown on December 14. 2012; the Pulse Night Club in Orlando on June 12, 2016, Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland on February 14, 2018 and most recently, the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on October 27, 2018.
When these mass violence events occur, stations are thrown into coverage without a breaking news plan. Newsroom staffs are overworked and overwhelmed, enduring incredible physical, mental and emotional stress during these incidents, often will little or no prior experience. While avoiding the over work and trauma associated with mass violence is impossible, it is nonetheless critical for newsrooms to be as prepared as possible.
Incident Reporter is a modular table top training system and service designed to simulate different types of newsroom scenarios. It uses familiar board game mechanics as six participants who represent a newsroom try to decipher incoming “facts” and synthesize the content for use on air. The simulation is timed to better mirror real-world scenarios. Those “facts” come from various “sources” including government officials, eyewitness accounts and social media. The group comes together in their decisions on what to air and what to disregard with factual accuracy being the primary goal. After the first run through of the simulation, facilitators grade the performance examining mistakes that were made. The team then runs the simulation a second time - with even shorter time limits - employing the lessons learned from the evaluation.
John Stempin designed Incident Reporter. He has more than 25 years of experience as a senior news producer at NPR and other public radio stations. He’s worked with hundreds of local newsrooms from the NPR Newscast Desk covering a variety of breaking news stories including mass violence situations. Last summer, he introduced Incident Reporter to PRNDI members at the Philadelphia conference. Participants signed up to be part of a group of six to go through the simulation, but Stempin had yet to run Incident Reporter in a public radio newsroom, until now.
“The active shooter or mass violence scenario is unique. Unlike other stories with a linear narrative, mass violence situations are dislocated. You’re in a fog. There’s plenty of misinformation, facts arrive out of sequence, you have to make big, snap judgements often on the flimsiest of details,” said Stempin. “Our simulation allows a newsroom to understand the processes involved but you’re not live. You get all the dynamics without a public safety crisis or your reputation being visibly on the line.”
Last month, Stempin traveled to Chapel Hill, North Carolina to spend the day with reporters and producers at WUNC. Brent Wolfe is the station’s news director.
“I intentionally assembled a group of newsroom veterans and newer employees to see how they would interact,” said Wolfe.
Wolfe tapped veteran reporter Jay Price and managing editor Dave DeWitt along with reporters Adhiti Bandlamudi, Naomi Prioleau and producer Laura Pellicer. In the first round of the simulation, the group took on various roles with Wolfe leading the operation as news director. Under a strict time limit, the group had to decide quickly what information to report.
“Working with a single newsroom was important. Not only did we want to see WUNC’s news judgement but it was a chance for Brent and Dave to safely evaluate staff group dynamics under stress,” said Stempin.
During the second round of the simulation, Dave DeWitt assumed the role of news director.
“I learned not to assume that colleagues and reporters all had the same editorial standards as everyone else,” said DeWitt. “And to make sure that what we were reporting, broadcast, digital, etc. had to come through a central team of editors before being disseminated.”
Adhiti Bandlamudi is the reporter assigned to Guns & America, a reporting collaboration involving several public radio stations including WUNC.
“I thought the reporter simulation was great! I was surprised a board game made me feel like I was in a breaking news situation,” said Bandlamudi. “Having covered active shooter situations in the past, I feel like this game was a really good simulation of what it is like. I’d love to see other versions of this game for other breaking news situations, like extreme weather conditions, election nights, or officer-involved shootings that result in protests across the city.”
Reporter Naomi Prioleau found that completing the simulation twice improved her skill level.
“For me, learning about what kinds of questions to ask and where to go and who to contact as we played was one of the biggest lessons for me since I didn’t have much experience with breaking news like an active shooter situation,” said Prioleau. “I enjoyed playing different roles and I think the second time around helped us operate smoother and gave us more confidence as a team.”
Jay Price spent years as a newspaper reporter before coming to WUNC to cover military and veterans issues.
“Even for an experienced reporter, the exercise was valuable. Probably something I should do every few months,” said Price. “This was a great way to reinforce the key basic things we need to do just as firefighters and soldiers practice for critically important situations that they may face once, twice or maybe never in a career. “
In the end, Brent Wolfe felt the training opportunity brought more cohesion to his staff.
“I think any newsroom, no matter how big or small, would be better prepared to react to breaking news after completing this simulation,” said Wolfe.
The training was not only valuable to WUNC, it helped Stempin, too.
“We learned a lot about the Incident Reporter system and training on the WUNC trip. We’ll be adding a significant innovation increasing the reality of the sim for the conference,” he said.
PRNDI will be offering a special pre-conference training opportunity this June in Washington, DC on covering acts of mass violence. Along with using the Incident Reporter breaking news simulation, the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma will also be part of a full day of training with a module on creating emotional resiliency in the newsroom.
For more information or to register go to prndi.org.