Some advice on covering tragedies

Marathon explosion scene (Aaron Tang/Wikimedia Commons)

Marathon explosion scene (Aaron Tang/Wikimedia Commons)

The media has had a hard time reporting the search for a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing since the explosions killed three and injured about 100 Monday. CNN and the Associated Press battled with NBC News on Twitter Wednesday morning, each news site claiming that authorities had either found a suspect or hadn’t. The New York Post reported on Monday that 12 people had been killed, citing a federal law enforcement source. In light of the media’s confusion, the Dart Center re-posted a compilation of advice they solicited from several journalists following the shootings in Tucson in 2012.

Editors, freelancers, broadcasters and international reporters shared different anecdotal lessons from covering various tragedies like the Oklahoma and Madrid bombings. Here are some highlights:

Scott Wallace, freelance journalist: “Above all, forget trying to ‘scoop’ your colleagues on this story.”

Steven Gorelick, professor of media studies at Hunter College: “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.'”

Lena Jakobsseon, TV producer: “Chasing victims’ family members down the street seems like a far more reasonable idea if CNN and MSNBC and FOX and all the nets are doing it, too, and you’re about to get yelled at if you don’t get that video. But you always have at least a few seconds to stop and listen to what your gut is telling you. Ratings come and go. The impact on your integrity, and on the people you’re covering — that stays.”

Read the whole compilation here.

Journalists too quick to call Boston explosions a terrorist attack?

The aftermath of the explosions (Russavia/Wikimedia Commons)

The aftermath of the explosions (Russavia/Wikimedia Commons)

With the rapid speed of today’s media content production, journalists do not have hours to formulate theories or approaches to breaking news stories, especially not deadly emergencies like Monday’s Boston Marathon explosions. Tanveer Ali, in a post for the Columbia Journalism Review, urges journalists to use caution when thinking about attaching the word “terrorism” to the attack that killed three and reportedly injured more than 100.

“The media has no role, since it has no expertise, in determining whether an act is one of terrorism or not,” said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism scholar at Georgetown University, in an email to Ali. “One thing is that they should resist pressing the authorities, pundits, and those who have specialized in studying terrorism for many decades to speculate on who may have done it and why.”

The White House did not label the attack an act of terrorism, though they said the FBI is investigating it as such. On Monday, CNN made an editorial decision to call the Boston event a terrorist attack, and in Europe papers like The Guardian called it a terror attack almost immediately.

Though the FBI even admits the definition of terrorism is hard to pin down, the term does represent a certain weight to Americans with a post-9/11 attitude about explosions. In a democracy where the media ultimately establishes terminology, Ali says it’s best for journalists to avoid the word “terrorism” until clearer notions of what happened prevail.

Boston Marathon explosions remind journalists how to handle social media

The explosions at the Boston Marathon Monday revealed once again how new forms of social media allow for immediate, shot-from-the-hip reporting during emergencies and breaking news. While reporters tried to sort out whether reported explosions at Boston’s JFK library had any connection to the marathon explosions, a flood of tweets and Vine clips were posted with video and on-scene impressions as three people were reportedly killed and almost a hundred wounded.

Poynter did a Storify to sample the palette of approaches journalists took, including observations from on-scene reporters (“I saw people’s legs blown off…”) and direction to other sources where credible people were posting definite information. The flood of reporting also served to remind journalists that information should be confirmed before it’s retweeted or shouted out to the masses.

The Storify also included requests from sources who wanted to be left alone: “Jesus Christ reporters, leave us alone right now…” Some people also bemoaned CNN’s decision to call the situation a terrorist attack.