June 17, 2016

The morning news had ended and overnight crews were preparing to leave when Katy Camp got word that something was happening in Newtown, Connecticut.

Camp, then the morning executive producer for WVIT in Hartford, produced the first several hours of coverage of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.

Within a year, she moved to Orlando to work at WFTV.

Early Sunday morning, she got a call from a colleague about a shooting at a gay nightclub and headed into work.

Camp never thought she’d cover a story like this again.

Mass shootings and attacks are now such a recurring part of the work of journalism that at least three of the journalists based in Orlando covered other major events while working in other markets: Newtown, Boston and Aurora, Colorado.

“It is tragic that journalists are gaining experience at covering mass shootings. No one wants to be an expert at this,” said Lori Shontz, a journalism instructor at the University of Oregon who’s working on several projects examining how journalists approach mass shootings, how they impact them and what affect they have on the communities that are covered. “But journalism is a craft, and we all learn as we do it.”

Here are the lessons from those past tragedies that Orlando journalists are applying now.

Don’t get caught up in the rush.

On the morning of the Boston Marathon in 2013, Gal Tziperman Lotan got to work at the Boston Globe around 8 a.m., realizing it would be a busy day.

She was just finishing a photo gallery with quirky moments from the race when the scanner in the newsroom alerted her to two explosions at the finish line.

“And then they started saying ‘mass causalities,’ and the whole newsroom just buckled down and went into work mode.”

In 2014, she moved to Orlando.

Early Sunday morning, she got a call from a fellow Orlando Sentinel reporter and headed out to cover the unfolding mass shooting Orlando’s Pulse nightclub.

In Boston and Orlando, there were a lot of rumors early on and a lot of uncertainty, Tziperman Lotan said.

But big stories often develop so quickly that early information can be unreliable, as NPR reminded readers on Sunday with an editor’s note.

“It really underscores the importance of stopping and thinking about what you’re getting,” Tziperman Lotan said.

Remember the relentless flow of news will stop at some point.

Tziperman Lotan is one of many journalists who covered one devastating story after another this week in Orlando. It was like this in Boston, too, she said. After the marathon bombings, there were days of searching for the bombers and learning about the injured and dead. That Saturday morning, she had to cover a homicide.

“It doesn’t cease. It doesn’t stop. Even if you really want to take a break, the news just completely floods in and you just have to be on top of it.”

In Boston, though, the barrage of news eventually slowed down.

But it doesn’t go away, for you or the community.

Not a day passes that Camp doesn’t think of what happened at Sandy Hook.

“The Pulse shooting brought the worst parts of it back; the details that make your heart sick or make you feel empty,” she said. “This week has been a struggle, so I find myself returning to my motivation for becoming a journalist: to help people, to spend my life making a difference.”

Tziperman Lotan still thinks of the victims in Boston often, too.

“And I think it’s gonna be the same here,” she said. “You can’t forget the people you saw who had blood on their clothes or who had no idea where their friends and their family were…even when the news cycle takes a break, that’s not something that stops.”

When news organizations head to the next city struck by a mass shooting or terrorist attack, they should also remember coverage could affect that community, said Nicole Dahmen, a University of Oregon assistant professor who’s working with Shontz. “With this understanding, how can journalism responsibly cover gun violence and mass shootings? How do we balance the moral imperatives of seeking truth and minimizing harm?”

It’s something Camp thinks about, too.

“I believe our role is a privilege, and I want to make sure I honor that,” she said. “I would hate to think a coverage decision hurt the victims or their families.”

You have to take care of yourself.

Like Tziperman Lotan and Camp, Charles Minshew woke Sunday morning to something he thought he’d never cover twice. In 2012, when a gunman opened fire in a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado, Minshew was an intern at The Denver Post.

He moved to Orlando in 2013.

On Sunday, Minshew, now at the Orlando Sentinel, tried to stop and ask colleagues if they were OK. He reminded one coworker that it was OK to feel the weight of the tragedy.

It’s OK to be upset, he told her. It’s OK to take off your hat as a reporter and feel emotions. It’s OK to go home and cry. The journalists at the Sentinel are members of the community, just like everyone else, he said.

“I just can’t think of any way you disconnect your emotions from something as terrible as this.”

Shontz, who helped cover a mass shooting for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette early in her career, agreed.

“All of the journalists we interviewed found themselves overwhelmed at times — they talked about ‘going into reporter mode’ and how that is necessary. It is — I’ve been there,” she said. “But I would encourage them to make the time to take care of themselves and also to reach out to journalists who haven’t covered this kind of tragedy before.”

With both Sandy Hook and Pulse, it’s hard to cover what happened for days and weeks at a time, Camp agreed. Newsroom leaders can help relieve this stress by adding support staff, bringing in professional counselors or buying food. 

“The initial day isn’t the hardest, emotionally — it’s when you start learning about the victims and seeing their faces, hearing from the people who loved them,” she said. “That’s when the weight of the loss begins to hit you.”

If you haven’t yet covered one of these stories, prepare.

Camp never thought she’d cover a mass shooting again.

“I thought it statistically impossible that I would cover another massacre in my local news market,” she said. “I moved hundreds of miles away from Connecticut, to Orlando. I don’t live in L.A. or New York, where terror alerts are discussed with regularity. I don’t work for network news or on an international desk for a newspaper. I don’t travel to war zones, embed with the military, or travel to some of the world’s most violent neighborhoods.”

So how can you prepare?

If you see an event in another city, follow it closely, Tziperman Lotan said. See what reporters there are doing and think through how you’d handle it yourself.

Get comfortable working with different editors and reporters, she said. Know how to transmit information quickly and what works best for your team. Will editors pull from reporters’ Twitter and Periscope feeds? Will you call in dispatches?

“If you have a good basis in that already, it will be much easier,” Tziperman Lotan said.

Having a support system already in place is also important, Camp said. This week, she’s gotten help from her colleagues at WFTV and Cox Media Group, but also from her friends who were there as she covered Newtown.

And while it’s important to take time to plan ahead, also take time to process after, Shontz said. The major drawback to having experience covering mass shootings and terrorist attacks is forgetting to step back and examine the routine that experience creates.

“When news is breaking, it’s hard to have discussions about what we can do better as a profession and how much a shooter’s desire for media attention plays into this,” Shontz said. “I hope there will be a space for those conversations to happen at some point. I don’t know the answers — it’s why we’re doing this work — but I do know that the questions are important.”

At our best, journalists hold the powerful accountable, she said, and we need to hold ourselves accountable, too.

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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