Then & Now, Oklahoma City Covers Bombing Aftermath With Care

Late last week, I was coaching reporters in the KWTV (Oklahoma City) newsroom when I realized many of them were in middle school when Timothy McVeigh blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, killing 168 people. (Click here for bios of the dead.)

Today is the 15th anniversary of that act of terrorism, which occurred at 9:02 a.m. Central Time.

The day's events will center around the National Memorial near where the Federal Building once stood. (See fact sheet.)

Please, let's hope no knucklehead journalist tries to "test" security today by parking a truck outside a federal building. We have seen that stunt before. Many journalists have also tested agriculture supply stores to see if they still sell bulk fertilizer like McVeigh used to build his bomb.

But the Oklahoma City bombing was a signal that anti-government rhetoric can lead to violence. I remember standing in my newsroom in Nashville, watching the coverage and thinking, "If this can happen in Oklahoma City, it can happen anywhere."

The Memorial website lists some of the essential data:

  • "168 People Killed"
  • "19 Children Killed"
  • "1 Rescuer Killed"
  • "850 People Injured"
  • "30 Children Orphaned"
  • "219 Children Lost at Least One Parent"
  • "12,384 Volunteers and Rescue Workers Participated in Rescue, Recovery and Support"
  • 387,000 people in Oklahoma City knew someone killed or injured in the bombing (more than one-third of the population).
  • 190,000 people in Oklahoma City attended funerals for bombing victims (19 percent of the population).

Three weeks before the bombing, my friend Joyce Reed had just taken the job as News Director at KWTV. Joyce is now the Vice President for Content for Griffin Communications in Oklahoma City. I have done paid consulting work for that group and spoke with Joyce while there last week about what she learned from covering the event and what the coverage would be like now.

Joyce tells me that Oklahoma stations will avoid much mention of McVeigh (who was executed for the crime) and won't run much video from the bombing.

Joyce told me about one of the big lessons she learned from the bombing coverage. She said her station spent so much time "going live" that she realized days later that she didn't free up photographers to capture enough video of the scene.

The Oklahoma City bombing came long before 9/11 and long before Hurricane Katrina. Both of those disasters touched off conversations about how journalists, like firefighters and police officers, need counseling and decompression time after working under such pressure. Reed says after the bombing, her staff "turned inward" and "hung in there" for a long time. But after McVeigh's trial, she started losing staff who felt they had "seen their community through" the ordeal.

Journalists should think about how they would cover an attack like the Oklahoma bombing today. When it happened, 15 years ago, TV stations didn't file much online. Even most cable news channels were fairly young. Today, Reed says, we would have video and photos flowing in from the public. We would have the advantage of Twitter feeds, and social networking sites could bind hurting communities together.

While nearly all of the attention focuses on those in the Federal Building, that was not the only site affected by the blast. There were people walking nearby, people working in nearby buildings. The final report from the blast investigation listed these other casualties:

Journal Record Building
This building had 303 occupants on the day of the bombing. At the time it housed a daily business publication, now it houses the Oklahoma City National Memorial Museum.
  • No deaths
  • 126 people injured

YMCA Building
This building had 164 total occupants on the day of the bombing.

  • No deaths
  • 77 people injured

Spacer Spacer

Oklahoma Water Resources Building
A recording in this building (with 65 occupants at the time) captured the sound of the bombing.

  • 2 deaths
  • 39 people injured

Athenian Building
This building had 5 occupants on the day of the bombing.

  • 1 death
  • 4 people injured

Others near the blast

  • 1 death
  • 167 people injured in other buildings near the blast
  • 60 people injured outside

The Oklahoman has an impressive interactive bombing memorial site. (For perspective, here is The Oklahoman's coverage on the morning after the bombing). Here is a collection of Jim Lang's editorial cartoons.


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    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.


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