The first thing I tell young reporters when we watch tragedies unfold, as we did at the D.C. Navy Yard yesterday, is to watch the numbers. Those are chaotic moments filled with people doing dangerous work.
Authorities who are tasked with talking to the media are trying to get accurate information out, but often times you’ll see news outlets taking numbers and estimates from anywhere they can get them. Mistakes are made. Even the police numbers can be wrong. There are extra rooms to search, miscounts and miscommunications. There is the danger of being in danger. There could be all manner of things happening. It is fluid. It is chaotic. The early reports are often wrong.
That’s been the way of it for a long time. You can look at the terrible shooting in Newtown, Conn. as another example. Find your own. There are plenty.
So — particularly for the social media crowd — you have to keep in mind what you’re reading and what your retweeting and sharing. I offered some rules about this during storm season about it:
Twitter Breaking News rules: 1. Hipsters! Fewer filters. 2. Think before RTing. 3. Consider the fluid situation, re: numbers. 4. Think.
— kenny smith (@kennysmith) June 1, 2013
(By the way, Mashable is running a list of credible sources. What a great idea you can borrow yourself next time a story like this pops up … )
What if you’re there, on the ground?
The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma is an excellent resource. Follow that link for advice on how to work with people on the scene, what to expect, how editors can help reporters in a trying circumstance, case studies and more. Particularly note the self care links.
Finally, if you ever find yourself covering a story like that take extra batteries, extra notebooks and your humanity. You’re going to need them all.
Update: More on the errors of breaking news reporting from Poynter:
Large news organizations flood the zone. Live blogs kickoff. Scanners get fired up. Geofeedia and other tools are focused on the location and what people are saying, sharing. Officials are swamped with phone calls. People on Facebook are swamped with interview and information requests. Journalists with sources press them for information, anything.
And then, the errors. Maybe it’s a misidentification of a suspect, or a victim, or a location. Maybe people got the fundamental facts wrong. Who’s dead? How many shooters are there? An iconic building/business is flooded? Oops.