Five Rules for Covering Breaking News

Posted: Apr 03, 2014 10:41 AM
Five Rules for Covering Breaking News

News of yesterday's murders and rampage at Ft. Hood began to surface just as my national radio show was beginning. The first segment of the program was with Senator Marco Rubio --itself a newsmaker-- was wrapping up as first reports of an "active shooter at Ft. Hood" appeared on Twitter. The second segment, about DOD's budget with Robert O'Brien of Arent Fox included two references that a story was developing and O'Brien, a veteran of media firestorms from years at the U.N. and an experienced litigator, was careful to note the number one concern was for the victims and their families and that no details would be available for hours.

By 6:30 eastern, however, enough details had emerged to make the obvious choice of postponing regularly scheduled coverage of both the Supreme Court's campaign finance decision yesterday and the Court's hearing from Hobby Lobby last week --which can be still be covered in depth today-- and an interview with Robert Kaplan, author of China's Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. Both my conversations with Erwin Chemerinsky and John Eastman about the Supreme Court and with Kaplan can air today.

As details of the number of people believed to be dead and the possibility of a second shooter began to emerge, I was joined in studio by journalists and filmmakers Phelim McAleer and Anne McElhinney, who are crowd sourcing the funding for a movie about Kermit Gosnell, America's worst serial murderer, the butcher of Philadelphia. Both were amazing friends to have help manage huge news flows from all the networks and especially Twitter, but McAleer especially was a stroke of broadcasting luck as he had covered Northern Ireland's "The Troubles" for a dozen years and had been at the scene of literally hundreds of bombings, mortar attacks and murders.

"Don't believe anything you hear in the first six hours," he stated again and again as we waited for official word about casualties and the identity of the shooter, though when three sources printed the name of the killer I broadcast it as well. Anne and I were particularly surprised ot hear a CNN reporter say, at 7:44 eastern that sources had told CNN that this is not a terrorism incident. That was simply impossible to conclude at that moment, as any journalist would no.

We could find no one mentioning the story that Phelim brought to my attention from Tuesday, a Fox News exclusive about an FBI investigation into threats against military bases by a man named Booker. The shooter had no connection with Booker, but no one new that for hours and more importantly, it was a piece of relevant information that might have impacted base preparations if it had widely circulated on the base (as I suspect but have not yet been able to confirm happened because of social media and the networks of military spouses who keep close eyes on all news about their home bases.)

Phelim and Anne pointed out that MSM wouldn't know how to handle such a story, containing as it does a worry about Islamist violence, even though real journalists know you simply report relevant facts deep into a story and do not weight them with overwrought speculation. The "Booker" story from the day before was surely relevant but also potentially sensationalist and misleading, so it should have been noted deep in written stories or in passing on broadcast news, unless the focus was on the coverage of the event itself and what was and was not being mentioned. (CNN, for example, because of the mis-identification of the Boston bomber a year ago steadfastly refused to name the killer for hours after all other major news networks had done so.)

Phelim and Anne graciously agreed to stay with me for the entire five hour broadcast which wrapped up when the Ft. Hood press conference concluded. Phelim should be a staple of cable land when any horrible incident of this sort occurs as perhaps other veterans of the Troubles should be because he has a unique perspective that comes from arrive at hundreds of scenes of terrible political and non-political violence. From yesterday's broadcast, as well as live broadcasts from the moment 9/11 began to unfold and a hundred other big news events, I have learned the following five rules:

1. The first rule is a negative: Don't trust a source who won't use his or her name on air. "Sources tell...." is an alarm that nonsense and worse follows.

2. Take relevant information from every source and attribute quickly and freely. I read on air with many attributions from The New York Times, The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal coverage, and grabbed audio bits --always identified-- from Fox News and CNN of the president, the Secretary of Defense and then from the press conference by General Mark Milley. No one news source has the whole story, and cable news is particularly lousy at freely attributing what is being said in real time on other networks and news organizations. It isn't about being first, but about comprehensive and correct.

3. Find a real expert, like Phelim McAleer, who has covered thousands of stories and and ask him to sit in and critique your own coverage, correcting and adding as need be balance and perspective. Many if not most cable anchors haven't been to a mass murder scene, much less scores and scores of them. They don't understand the chaos that rules as the man or woman in charge on the scene tries to gather facts and organize responses. The needs of journalists, as Phelim noted last night, are the last priority if we can call them a priority at all.

4. Be aware that other news might happen at the same time as a huge story, just as a shooting at Kent State occurred in the middle of the Fort Hood coverage. Report it, but don't overreport it for fear of the 9/11 effect where there were many stories all of which were horrific and all of which were confusing. The 9/11 effect is the "all hands on deck what is going on" adrenalin-driven overdrive that leads ordinarily calm people to over-report small details.

5. The most important rule of all: Stick to the facts, "just the facts," and repeat the facts again and again and again. Always, always, always remember that some people are actually being terribly hurt, children and nephews and grandparents of people on the base, and thousands more are in a terrible position of intense worry. It is wrong to deny them real information and it is wrong to panic them with speculation. Repeating the same thing again and again and again seems boring and slow to the folks in the newsroom, but "just the facts" again and again, is the most important rule of all, and refusing to be caught up in news narratives that are preconceived is the second rule. It isn't a terrorism story or a deranged shooter story or a gun control story...but just a terrible event with facts to be relayed to an intensely interested public. The analysis of why and whom can come the next day.

The sad reality is that these sorts of news days are a staple of a journalist's year. The Boston bombing and Newtown were 2013's horrors, and now 2014 has its first. There will be more. Twitter makes them all more immediate and more difficult to cover. These five rules make them easier to report.