Reporters share lessons, experiences covering tragedy and trauma

By Anh Nguyen, Megan Milligan, Ashley Stalnecker and Zoe LaPorte

When tragedy strikes a community, local journalists are first on the scene gathering information and interviews.

But, the toll that this coverage takes on journalists comes in many forms.

Reporters and editors from Philadelphia, Baltimore, Las Vegas, Orlando and South Florida shared their experiences Saturday at a Pennsylvania Press Conference panel called “How Newsrooms Deployed, Endured and Recovered.”

Deployed

Breaking news can happen anytime and in the most unexpected place.

Rachel Crosby, Metro Reporter for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, was in bed when she found out about the Mandalay Bay shooting on Oct. 1, 2017.

“At the time I thought it was just another gun went off because this is Nevada and crazy things happen,” said Crosby.

It was not until she went on Twitter and saw the videos of the chaos that she alerted her colleagues to prepare for an active terrorist situation.

All of the communications at that point had been exchanged through text messages but Crosby moved them to Twitter where she could report and contact witnesses more easily.

Richard Martin, senior criminal justice editor at The Baltimore Sun, oversaw the coverage of Freddie Gray’s death, the ensuing citywide riots, and the unsuccessful prosecutions of the six Baltimore police officers involved.

“Some of our reporters were harmed while covering the protest of Freddie Gray’s death so I always tell my reporters if the situation is risky, don’t go in because it’s definitely not worth it,” said Martin.

He brought a helmet that was camouflaged as a baseball cap to demonstrate the safety measures his newsroom took.

Endured

Laura McCrystal and Justine McDaniel from Philadelphia Media Network covered the Amtrak train derailment that killed 8 and injured more than 200 people in May 2015. McCrystal was on the scene trying to find witnesses while McDaniel stayed at the office and interviewed families of the victims.

They agreed that the reporting process of the story was very difficult for them, especially when they tried to navigate the thin line between reporting fairly and exploiting tragedy.

Dana Banker, managing editor of the South Florida Sun Sentinel, advised young journalists to be skeptical and challenge authorities early to get records of mass casualties.

Misinformation is always a threat to journalists’ credibility in these instances.

“I got a number of casualties from a trusted source that was way higher than I thought possible,” McDaniel said. “We didn’t run the number and it turned out to be wrong. I was right to trust my instinct.”

Banker’s team obtained videos made by Parkland school shooter, Nikolas Cruz, where he talked about the plan to massacre his schoolmates.

She was hesitant to publish them — not because of possible backlash, but out of concern the videos could inspire others to mimic Cruz’s actions.

“I was not sure if we should do it, but we also could not hide it,” said Banker.

Recovered

John Cutter, managing editor of the Orlando Sentinel, said it was important to keep in mind the physical and mental health of the newsroom after covering such events like the Pulse nightclub shooting.

After days of covering the incident, Cutter brought in therapy dogs for his staff. Crosby said mental health resources must go beyond that.

“The consequences of covering a mass casualty event reveal themselves in different ways over time,” Crosby said.

She advocated for a more open environment in the newsroom to discuss mental health, eventually leading to scheduled counseling meetings with editors and staff.

“It’s important to take care of your people,” said Crosby.

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