Tips for Covering Mass Shootings

On Monday morning, journalists in Las Vegas scrambled to report on the courthouse shooting there. The coverage won’t end with that night’s newscasts or the next morning’s newspapers. I covered mass killings in July 2003 shootings at Modine Manufacturing in Jefferson City, Mo., and in February 2007 at Trolley Square in Salt Lake City. Here is some advice from those experiences.

Victims and witnesses. Witnesses and victims. Find them, tell their stories and stay focused on them. Never will you have a story where you report about “real people” like a mass shooting.

Be careful with the shooter or shooters. The Modine Manufacturing gunman, who killed three coworkers and wounded five, was a 25-year-old man who lived with his mother, was estranged from his father, had no friends and little education, was teased by co-workers and had no prospects for advancement. Which of those was the reason he killed? Mental health professionals will tell you there’s no one reason why someone “snaps.” Gunmen can be complex characters. Be careful about latching onto a single aspect of the gunman as an explanation for why he did it. And if the gunman has died without leaving behind correspondence, be prepared to never have a firm answer for why the attack occurred.

The police should be a low priority. Mass shootings create a lot of work for law enforcement and it will take them a long time to answer all the questions. Worse still, police may not get it right the first time. So don’t waste manpower by having reporters camp outside the police station. I lost eight hours two days after the Trolley Square shootings waiting for Salt Lake City police to call me back and answer questions. Check in with police only when it’s convenient for you and don’t wait on them. If there’s a press conference that features only police, send only one reporter.

Think about narratives and graphics. “Then what happened?” is a good question when reporting on a mass shooting. It will help you create a narrative of events. Just as important as the sequence is the scene. Ask questions that will help you build graphics of the attacks and the sequence. It’s better if a graphic artist can accompany a reporter on interviews or do some of the reporting.

Don’t do it alone or quickly. There are a lot of people to interview after a mass shooting and a lot of background reporting to do on the gunman. If you’re a reporter, don’t try to do everything and tell your boss when you need help. If you’re an editor or producer, don’t expect everything quickly. Misinformation abounds after a mass shooting. If you rush stories into the newspaper or broadcast before it is verified, you are guaranteed to have something wrong.

Don’t be a detective. You don’t need to account for every bullet. You don’t need to know every movement of the gunman. Details are great for storytelling — but there are details, and there are wastes of time. Find the facts you need to create a narrative or tell the most pertinent information and don’t dwell on the small things.

Stay calm. A mass shooting is chaos, with a lot of moving parts. There are many victims and witnesses and some will give conflicting accounts or only the bits and pieces they saw. Others will refuse to speak for the same reasons sources always refuse to speak. Police aren’t much better. At some point, your competition will beat you to a story. Don’t get frustrated.

This story is not going away. The “breaking” news will end. News from the shooting will not. Think about what elements need long-term following, such as victim updates, ongoing investigations, lawsuits, memorials and what changes in the law might result from the shooting.

Nate Carlisle is a crime reporter at The Salt Lake Tribune.

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