Media coverage in times of tragedy
In times of tragedy, time is of the essence. This is the case for first responders as well as public information providers (spokespeople and the press).
The spokesperson’s role is to gather as much information as it becomes available to provide the most accurate assessment in a timely manner. Duty bound to the agency (or people) they are speaking on behalf of and second to the general public.
While errors can and do happen as new information develops and speculation runs rampant, reporters are duty bound to put accuracy over expediency. As I learned in my early reporting days you need to “get it right, first.” When covering events like Monday’s horrific shooting at the Washington D.C. Navy Yard, it is clear which national television news outlet dominates with exception.
There is no doubt that FOX News is definitely the go-to for truly fair and balanced political news but the breaking news leader continues to be CNN. Suffice it to say, social media is useful as an alert system but rarely relied upon for accuracy.
Mid-morning CNN’s Wolf Blizter took the lead from the anchor desk and usual afternoon anchor Jake Tapper took a commanding role on the ground at the scene. Reporting with an abundance of caution, Tapper’s assessment and analysis revealed what distinguishes veteran versus novice journalist (a contrast painted by FOX’s 20-something cub reporter Peter Doocey.) Additionally, CNN provided a view from Congress with correspondent Dana Bash who informed viewers that the shooting led lawmakers to call a recess. However, Bash was quickly and subtly rapped on the knuckles by Tapper after her failed attempt to equate the current situation on the Hill with 9/11. Tapper noted, “I was there too,” and it’s not the same.
While FOX was first to publicly “name” the alleged shooter just after 3pm EDT, CNN continued to caution against using it before authorities officially released it.
As spokespeople go, the president took a more cautious tone as he made remarks during a pre-planned event when he noted:
We do know, some have been shot and some have been killed.
Sure to steer clear of providing a concrete number too soon or pontificate about politics, the same couldn’t be said about the media’s rush to put a number on casualties during a fluid situation. Some vacillated until DC Mayor Adrian Gray announced the official number of deceased at 12 + the shooter.
National spokespeople from area hospitals (save for the medical director who began a slight social rant) to the Mayor and police chief – each remained accessible over the course of the day with regular updates, sticking to the facts as they knew them. Eight hours after the shooting and a tactical transitional hand over to the FBI, authorities still had a lot of incomplete information according to DC police chief Cathy Lanier, another commanding presence in the midst of chaos.
While media lessons are learned with each event, unfortunately they have come at the cost of another tragic event.