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The Responsibility of Media During Public Safety Crises

May 10, 2018 Leanna Bernhard

Nashville was recently splashed into the national spotlight for an event that is all too familiar nowadays: a fatal mass shooting at the Antioch, Tenn., Waffle House in the early morning hours of Sunday, April 22, 2018. The relentless local and national media coverage of the shooting raises the question: What should the public expect from the media during intense periods of high profile public safety crises?

Only accurate information verified by police should be reported

Inaccurate information can spread like wildfire. During these events, the public stays glued to any source of information – news broadcasts, newspapers and, now more than ever, social media. One seemingly innocent tweet a journalist sends without fact-checking can quickly go viral. An example of this is when numerous news organizations erroneously reported an arrest had been made in the Boston Marathon bombings, but one had not yet been made. As years have passed and journalists have unfortunately become more accustomed to reporting these real-time events, the mistakes have diminished. But, media need to always remember to not let accuracy suffer in the name of being the first to report on a new development.

Use social media effectively

In this day and age of social media and news at your fingertips, we no longer have to wait until the nightly news to hear about a crime or mass shooting. Because we can receive updates in real time, reporters should use social media tools effectively. Stream press conferences, updates and interviews live on Facebook or Twitter. If streaming from his personal social media account, the reporter should be sure to share the stream to the media outlet’s account, which probably has more followers, in order to reach more people. If the reporter knows the answer to a question posed by a livestream viewer, he should answer it to the best of his ability or ask the question the next time he speaks with an official. Social media has given the public access to minute-by-minute updates, which once only belonged to the police officers and organizations investigating a crime. Reporters should use those tools as effectively as possible.

Respect victims’ privacy

It’s the nature of the industry: Journalists want to be the first one to score an interview or break a story. However, this shouldn’t compromise victims’ privacy. In the wake of the Waffle House shooting, every outlet and journalist understandably wanted an interview with James Shaw, Jr., the heroic man who disarmed Reinking. While streaming live on Facebook, one reporter repeatedly mentioned her efforts to get in contact with Shaw, who was in the hospital at that time being treated for his injuries. These victims deserve their time to decompress, speak with their families and, certainly, receive necessary medical treatment for any injuries they suffered during the event. Holding an interview five minutes or three hours after an event won’t change or diminish their memories. If possible, media should try to give victims a chance to see their families and tend to medical matters before they ask for an interview. 

Media should try to give victims a chance to see their families and tend to medical matters

Don’t celebritize suspects

Alleged suspects shouldn’t feel like Beyoncé or Taylor Swift walking down the street with a handful of photographers (paparazzi) calling their name, asking questions and taking their photo. They haven’t done anything to be celebrated. A photo of a suspect in custody can bring peace of mind to a community reeling from a tragic event, but his every move doesn’t need to be documented. Media followed Reinking from booking to the hospital to the magistrate’s office. Eventually, the media refocus their attention elsewhere, but alleged suspects should never feel special or popular after committing such horrific acts.

Unfortunately, mass shootings and other such crimes happen too often nowadays. But by following these few guidelines, media have the ability to keep the public informed and safe in a responsible way.

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