How to cover what comes next in the Pennsylvania school stabbing case

Pittsburgh-area newsrooms now must live through the reality of covering a mass casualty attack, just as journalists near Fort Hood, Texas, did last week.

They will seek answers about how a student at the Franklin Regional Senior High School in Murrysville, Penn., slashed and stabbed 20 people Wednesday morning. For months, journalists will tell stories of heroism and panic, of missed signals and critiques of school security. Sadly, other journalists have been through this. I asked them to help guide us through the coverage ahead.

Lessons from Newtown

Josh Kovner-Reporter, Hartford Courant

Hartford Courant reporter Josh Kovner co-authored the paper’s reports that profiled Adam Lanza, the troubled 20-year-old who committed the second deadliest school shooting in American history. Kovner’s and Alaine Griffin’s reporting of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School was part of a partnership with PBS Frontline.

I asked Kovner what advice he had for journalists investigating the stabbings and trying to understand the mind of the young man who is accused of doing them.

“You have to adjust your expectations,” Kovner told me by phone. “You may get close. You may identify a number of factors but to try to figure out what is in somebody’s mind is by definition a losing proposition.” Kovner said he and his paper did piece together an understanding of Lanza’s mental health issues, his likes and dislikes, his childhood. But key questions about the shooting cannot be answered.

“Why was it December 14th and not the 13th or the following February?” Kovner wondered. “If you think you are going to get answers like that or your editors think you should, you should know better before you start,” Kovner warned. These cases never produce clean, simple answers.

Kovner said journalists who report stories like Newtown, and now the Franklin Regional Senior High School will endure public criticism. “People will ask how you dignify such a monster by even mentioning their name,” Kovner said.

And he has an answer to their question. In the Newtown case, he says, the investigation into what led up to the shooting has taken more than a year and has a long way to go. “But remember that in a year later, and for another year into the future, the gaps and deficiencies and missed red flags are going to be consuming mental health advocates as they figure out how to change and reform. But they will initiate reform, and that is what you have to keep your eyes on.”

In fact, Kovner said, that hope for improving mental health and early detection was a key line that he and other Courant reporters used to encourage people close to Lanza to speak up. “It helps if you are genuinely sorry for what has happened to the person you are speaking with and you can tell them that.” Kovner continued, “Early on, our calling card was ‘there is a lot of misinformation out there and we are setting it straight.’” Later, Kovner said he would explain to people that there was hope that deeper understanding might spark reform.

And, Kovner said, journalists investigating the Murrysville case would be smart not to get so caught up in the police investigation. When police say they know who the attacker is, the deeper story is exploring holes in the more complicated hidden background. “They are far less a police case than they are a case for public health, mental health committees and experts. The police angle is fairly upfront — the police angle is not the most important angle. What happened that led up to this?”

Framing coverage

Newsrooms often invent banners or themes for their coverage that they use to package their work. These themes can set a tone for how a community thinks of itself. Without debating the wisdom or effectiveness of these attempts to package coverage, my advice is to be careful of the tone you use, in wording, in the design of the logo(s), and, for broadcasters, in the music that you use going into and out of coverage.

Be especially careful about the adjectives you choose, including “tragedy, horror, terror” and such. What happened is bad enough without journalists adding to the sorrow.

Minimize harm

Instead of 20 of us journalists knocking on a parent’s door for a photo, why not pool?

Mass casualty stories can be an opportunity for newsrooms to work together to minimize the harm they cause, even while staying competitive and aggressive in their coverage.

Every newsroom will want images of all of the attack victims. If the newsrooms work together and pool the images they obtain from families, they will not have to answer dozens of phone calls and door knocks from local, national and international media. Think of how you might react if a reporter came to you and told you that releasing a photo once, to the pool, you could avoid a dozen more journalists. Compassion and journalism do not have to be in competition with each other.

Lessons learned

Angie Kucharski-CBS News vice president for media strategy

Angie Kucharski is CBS Television Network’s vice president-media strategies. In 1999, she was the news director at KCNC in Denver when two high school students opened fire inside Columbine High School.

I asked her to draw on her experience to help newsrooms who are covering the school stabbings in Murrysville, Penn.. She said:

“Remember you are there for the community. Your community is looking for answers, you have to help the public to understand step-by-step what happened. The competitive nature of this is not as important as being accurate, giving perspective and context.

“These things seem to happen somewhere else. But you are part of a community where it is happening now. You are going to have to come to terms that these victims and families are kids and friends and neighbors that you know.

“Understand that over months of coverage the families and teachers that become the face of this story become public figures and they all have stories. But they are not public figures by choice.

“Maintain that relationship with the community even though there will be a frenzy of coverage initially.

“You don’t have to be the only one making decisions about your coverage. Get help. Sometimes you may forget that you have a lot of experts in your community including child psychologists and law enforcement experts. They are there as an added tool to help you understand the effect of your decisions. For example, in the days ahead, even where you fly news helicopters and how you fly helicopters in the area could retraumatize victims.”

Every market is different, but in Denver, the newsrooms understood there was competition, but as local media we “stand for the better qualities of what we did,” she said.

Make decisions about how to cover the school re-opening, Kucharski said. The last thing these kids saw were live trucks and helicopters as they left the school. Think about how much equipment you’ll really need when school resumes.

Give your staff some time to recover. What is amazing about the people with whom we share the passion of the craft is that they will give you their all, she said. But you can’t assume that your staff can shut off their emotions. It will hit them that they are covering their neighbors and friends. Sometimes the best gift you can give them is to tell them to go see their families and give their kids a hug.

Avoid Easy Answers

Bill Dedman-investigative journalist

Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Bill Dedman has dissected Secret Service studies of students who commit violent act. Several times over the years, Dedman has reminded us all that we should avoid trying to find easy answers as to why a student would harm others.

Among Dedman’s tips:

• There is no profile for school attackers. “The stereotypes of teens in Goth makeup or other types of dress are not useful in preventing attacks. Just as in other areas of security — workplace violence, airplane hijacking, even presidential assassination — too many innocent students will fit any profile you can come up with, and too many attackers will not.

“The demographic, personality, school history, and social characteristics of the attackers varied substantially,” the report said. Attackers were of all races and family situations, with academic achievement ranging from failing to excellent.

• Attackers don’t “just snap.” Resist the “nobody knew this would happen” explanation.  When students attack, the violence usually follows a long pattern of behaviors, clues, planning. Many have displayed violent behavior that required, or should have required intervention.

• Most attackers are not mentally ill. In fact, the Secret Service found that a third of school attackers suffered from a diagnosed mental illness. Many attackers had suffered with depression and suicidal thoughts, however.

How often are knives used?

Media reports have said the attacker this week used kitchen knives. Many cities and states have laws that regulate what knives may be carried in public. Generally, the laws have to do with blade length, switchblades and where a person may have a knife. For example, some cities forbid them in public areas such as parks.

The FBI says about 1,600 Americans die from knife violence each year. The figure has been declining steadily since 2006. Knives are used to kill people far more often than rifles or shotguns but far less than handguns.

Stay Factual About School Violence

Attacks like the one at Franklin Regional Senior High School might lead you to think that school violence is worse than ever and that more kids are carrying weapons.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the opposite is true.

This week, the journalism investigative group called RetroReport released a documentary project showing that projections years ago that juvenile crime was rising and growing more violent was simply wrong. Years ago, the phrase “superpredator” became shorthand for a growing fear that kids were out of control and there was reason to be afraid. RetroReport looked backward at those reports to show the superpredator predictions never panned out.

The CDC says among a 2011 nationally-representative sample of youth in grades 9-12:

• 32.8 percent reported being in a physical fight in the 12 months preceding the survey; the prevalence was higher among males (40.7 percent) than females (24.4 percent)

• 16.6 percent reported carrying a weapon (gun, knife or club) on one or more days in the 30 days preceding the survey; the prevalence was higher among males (25.9 percent) than females (6.8 percent)

• 5.1 percent reported carrying a gun on one or more days in the 30 days preceding the survey; the prevalence was higher among males (8.6 percent) than females (1.4 percent).

Look at this data table from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, compiled every year. You will see that students report school violence, threats and bullying. The percentage of students who say they have carried a weapon onto school grounds is flat or has decreased over the last two decades.

You can “get local” by looking at youth violence and injury stats state-by-state.

The government has many other resources to help you get beyond the emotions of the story:

Think ahead 

As hard as it is to get through daily news coverage when mass violence comes to your town, you have to think ahead.

  • How will you decide whether to show up on the day the school reopens?
  • How will you use 9-1-1 calls? What will you not use, and why?
  • Package your coverage into a repository online. It will become a destination years from now as the public searches to understand this event.
  • How can you produce content especially focused toward students and parents?
  • When will you stop using file and archive images of this incident? Under what conditions would you reuse them?
  • How will you cover any legal/criminal proceedings in this case considering that it involves a juvenile?
  • How will you react if victims’ funds pop up asking for financial help to offset medical bills of the victims? What safeguards will you insist on being in place to be sure any money donated goes where it should?

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