Covering what comes next in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon explosions

In the days ahead, journalists will need to be excellent as they cover the aftermath of the Boston Marathon explosions, which have injured more than 100 people and left three dead.

Here are some ingredients of excellence, along with related tips.

Clearly tell the public what you know and what you do not know. With a story like this — one that changes by the hour — do not assume the public is up to date.

Don’t just keep adding information to your online stories. Every once in a while, do a total rewrite, not just a new top to the story. Otherwise, essential information can get pushed down in the story. When you make corrections or changes to your online stories, bring attention to them. For example, as the number of injured or fatalities changes, mention that you have updated that figure. If you have reported information that did not pan out, point that out. Your online stories will become the long-term record of the event.

Choose your words carefully. Be careful how you describe the bombs at this early stage. “Crude” and “unsophisticated” are highly subjective phrases. Some stories have described the lack of a “high-grade explosive.” You will need to explain these terms to your audience.

Acknowledge the emotional impact of the tragedy. Online conversations about the bombings, especially Twitter, have been loaded with people who are in distress, wondering what has become of humankind. Don’t underestimate that feeling. Spend some time and space honoring the good people who performed selfless acts in a time of crisis and beyond. Work with your local crisis lines, counselors and clergy, and stay in touch with the pulse of what they are hearing.

Let people know how they can help. In times of crisis, Americans tend to react by wanting to help. So we end up with warehouses of flowers and unwanted teddy bears. Help the public find productive ways to make the world better. They might not prevent future bombings, but they’re an outlet for people to do something other than worry and be sad.

Pay attention to the images you use now and in the days ahead. We know there were simply awful injuries, including people losing limbs. There have been some very graphic images and frankly, while some may disagree with news organizations airing and publishing them, I see a reason to use such images while the story is initially unfolding. It is not the time to sanitize our understanding of what happened. But as time passes, the reason for showing graphic images becomes less and less defensible because they eventually stop adding to our understanding. If you do decide to use the images, consider whether they could be used in black and white, or at least not in closeup. Lessen the harm while maximizing the truth you are trying to tell.

Make sure the videos you air/publish serve a purpose. If you’re working in television, consider how long you will continue to show the explosion video. For a while, those videos will serve a purpose; they show us what happened. But soon, everyone will have seen those images and there will be no need to keep playing them. Have a discussion about this in the newsroom on an ongoing basis. Just because you decide to use the video today, talk again tonight and tomorrow. You may decide to stop showing the video at some point, then decide to use the video again if it serves a journalistic purpose. Keep the conversation going and stay open to many ideas — including asking the public for input. Then, explain your decisions. Never use the video as “wallpaper” just to liven up your coverage. In addition to it being a matter of taste, re-running that video sends a signal that there is nothing new in your reporting.

Don’t overdo it. Especially to my TV friends, I would resist the temptation to name your coverage or overdo graphics, music and production on TV. This is not time to trot out the “America Under Attack” somber theme music, and it is not time to dust off the flag lapel pins you put away a few months after 9/11. Just do your job, tell me the story as clearly and straight-forwardly as you can.

Covering the injuries tactfully

I am hearing lots of reports describe the injuries in vague ways. Hospitals have fairly specific meanings behind the terms they use. The University of Michigan Health System explains the terms:

  • Good: Vital signs are stable and within normal limits. Patient is conscious and comfortable. Indicators are excellent.
  • Fair: Vital signs are stable and within normal limits. Patient is conscious but may be uncomfortable. Indicators are favorable.
  • Serious: Vital signs may be unstable and not within normal limits. Patient is acutely ill. Indicators are questionable.
  • Critical: Vital signs are unstable and not within normal limits. Patient may be unconscious. Indicators are unfavorable.
  • Treated and Released: Received treatment but not admitted.
  • Treated and Transferred: Received treatment. Transferred to a different facility.
  • Undetermined: Patient awaiting physician assessment

Covering suspects as news unfolds

Very early in the coverage, The New York Post began reporting that authorities had “identified a suspect, a Saudi national, who is currently being guarded in a Boston hospital with shrapnel wounds.” Suspects are not necessarily criminals. When someone is suspected of being involved keep asking questions:

  • “How do we know that?”
  • “What harm could come from us reporting that?”
  • “How will this help the public to know this?”
  • “When does the public need to know?”

The NY Posts’ information is pinned entirely on unnamed sources. What is your policy on the use of unnamed sources? NPR’s policy seems like a sensible one to me.

What are your policies about using names of people who are not charged but may be a “person of interest?” When the public hears that term, they may consider that person to be a “suspect.” Late Monday, there was a BOLO (a be on the lookout) report for a “darker skin male possibly a foreign national.” Such a description is so vague it serves next to no useful purpose to report it. How dark is dark? How do they know the person might have been a foreign national? Did the person have a particular accent? Describe it?

Steven Gorelick, professor of media studies at Hunter College, City University of New York, shared this advice with the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma Monday:

“Be very careful about the experts you select as sources. These kinds of high-profile stories are magnets for everyone from legitimate scholars and practitioners to self-proclaimed “profilers.”

“Serious experts are almost always quick to admit that there is no easy explanation for why and how something happened, especially before even the most basic information is released. Beware of the expert source who is just dying to be helpful. And perk up your ears when someone tells you: “’I really need to get more information before I have anything useful to say.”’

Finally, take care of yourself. Some of you journalists have seen some awful things.  The Dart Center has “resources for journalists covering large-scale attacks, including tips for working with emergency services and lessons from incidents like the Virginia Tech shootings, the Oklahoma City bombing and the Oslo/Utoya bombing and mass shooting in Norway.” Take advantage of these resources and others in your newsroom.

Related: Front pages & stories behind the stories highlight tragedy in Boston | How journalists are covering, reacting to the Boston Marathon explosions | Boston.com, other sites drop paywalls following explosions

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  • http://www.facebook.com/robert.knilands Robert Knilands

    One thing that should have happened long ago: The non-journalists who talk about “making a difference above the fold” the day after one of these tragedies need to shut up. Now is not the time to dream of SND awards. You know who you are, and you suck. Stop it. Now.

  • JH

    I would like to second “Don’t overdo it.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/letrungvan Lê Trung Văn

    Thank you for putting this out there. http://vaytructuyen.net/backlink/

  • C Adams

    A much needed reminder of the sensitivity that reporting on this crisis will require. Thank you for putting this out there.