The fundamental dilemma of covering the Orlando shooting

In the immediate aftermath of Sunday morning’s massacre at Pulse, an LGBT nightclub in Orlando, Florida, newsrooms across the country grappled with familiar questions, beginning with the four W’s:

Who was the shooter? Who were the victims?

When did it start? When will it end?

What happened during a three-hour standoff between police and the shooter, between the hours of 2 and 5am?

Where was the son of the woman who cried into the TV cameras, “Nobody can tell me where he is”?

And, then, the unanswerable fifth W: Why?

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For many newsrooms, there was a sad familiarity to the reporting, almost routine. The city was different, the names were different, the victim count was staggering, but they’d been through this many times before.

Kim Murphy, assistant managing editor at the Los Angeles Times, was in the newsroom on Sunday morning. “Unfortunately, we have a very experienced team of mass shooting reporters who’ve been doing this for quite a while,” Murphy says. In short order, reporters were dispatched to run the live blog, to scrub social media; someone was assigned to the victims, someone else to the profile of the shooter.

“There are certain lines of reporting you have to put in place right away,” says Michael Oreskes, news director at NPR. “Where’d the weapon come from, what did people know about the shooter before the shooting? It has become, sadly, a little bit practiced. ” Oreskes is a CJR board member.

BuzzFeed News Editor Lisa Tozzi echoes the sentiment. When there’s news of a mass shooting, Tozzi says, “One of the first posts we do is who were the people, who were the victims?

But as many times as they’ve covered a shooting, the dilemma of how to cover the shooter remains. While newsrooms will and should cover the details of who the Orlando shooter was and try to make sense of how and why he was capable of slaughter, it is clear that media coverage contributes to the cycle. 

“We know that a lot of these shooters want fame, and we know that the media coverage has given them what they want,” says Adam Lankford, a criminal justice professor at the University of Alabama and a researcher on mass attackers. “We know there are attackers that studied and copied and sometimes explicitly referenced previous attackers and used them as models.” The man who opened fire at the Umpqua Community College in Oregon earlier this year, killing nine, reportedly wrote in an online message before the attack, “Seems like the more people you kill, the more you’re in the limelight.”

“It’s a fundamental dilemma,” says Murphy of the LA Times. “Every time, we wrestle with this.” On Sunday morning, while preparing for the print paper, she insisted that while they would profile the shooter, it wouldn’t be on the front page. But as the news progressed, she changed her mind. “The news value of this guy outweighed any ultimately artificial desire to put him under a rug somewhere,” Murphy says. “It’s almost a societal necessity to know: Where did we as a culture screw up?”

Oreskes of NPR agrees. “I don’t really see how you avoid the name and basic facts about the shooter in this kind of egregious case,” he says. “The reality is we have to tell the story. We should just stay in bounds of what we know.” 

Lankford agrees that the media should cover the details about the shooter, but it needs to be done with care. “What we would want is to strike the right balance, where the media is sharing enough information so people could learn to recognize these people,” he says. “Withholding all information would be a disservice to our attempts to prevent another attack.” 

One way the tragedy in Orlando differs from previous shootings is the lack of clarity surrounding the shooter’s motives. As details emerged over the past two days—that he pledged allegiance to ISIS, that he abused his wife—motives only became murkier. For news editors, it was about getting the facts right, rather than coming down on one motive or another.

In the early hours, says Murphy, there was only a sketchy menu of motivations, and the newsroom chose to report them all equally. “Orlando nightclub gunman remembered as abusive, homophobic and racist,” the Times headline read, and the article followed with a litany of his hatred. “His ex-wife said he was unstable and beat her. His father said he spoke openly of his disgust for gay people. A co-worker recalled him as a virulent racist.” The next paragraph referred to his allegiance to ISIS. 

Other media outlets were less equivocal, focusing on certain motives over others and prompting a fragmented conversation about whether the core issue was anti-LGBT sentiment, assault rifle control, radical Islam, or mental illness. In his address to the nation Sunday afternoon, President Barack Obama called the massacre both “an act of terror and an act of hate.” 

“It’s possible for more than one thing to be true,” says Oreskes. “The first principle is: Don’t go beyond what the facts tell you. We actually, even at this point, don’t know what his motives were.”

Lankford agrees that events of this scope don’t need to be limited to a singular term. “I don’t see things as he’s a terrorist or he’s a mass shooter,” he says. “Clearly, he identified with terrorists like ISIS, and, clearly, he committed a mass shooting.” Lankford, who wrote a book called The Myth of Martyrdom, also said that mass shooters sometimes use martyrdom as a disguise. “They want to die, but they want to be perceived as heroes and warriors who are dying for a cause instead of wanting to escape personal problems.” 

By Monday, after the first horrific details had emerged and the names of the victims began to circulate, news outlets were more attentive to a big hole in the crime’s timeline: the three hours between 2 and 5am Sunday morning. Early reports indicated that a gunman had opened fire inside the Pulse nightclub shortly after 2am. Three hours later, police stormed the club, and at 5:56am they tweeted that the gunman was dead. On Monday, police provided more details about the hostage situation that unfolded during that time, but more questions remain.

Marc Caputo, a Politico reporter who writes the Florida Playbook, published a list of questions that hadn’t yet been adequately addressed by the media. “Terrorists pay attention to the news. Madmen pay attention to the news,” says Caputo, and that three-hour window in which the gunman held police at bay is worrisome. “I think it’s appropriate to ask the questions about whether the protocols and the judgment calls and the procedures were properly made, vetted, and whether they’re adequate.”

All the news editors CJR spoke with said they had similar questions about the timeline but that it takes time for information to become available.

“I think those questions were being asked by editors and journalists on that first day,” says Oreskes. “There is a question as to whether the fact that there were no answers could have been framed more clearly earlier on to say, ‘There’s a hole in the timeline. We actually have no idea what went on.’ ”

We can expect that over the next days and weeks these and many other questions regarding the events of Sunday morning, the shooter’s motives, and the FBI’s previous investigations into the shooter will be addressed.

But ultimately, with as many answers as we report and confirm and document, one unanswerable question will remain: the question of why a man would pick up a gun and shoot 100 people while they danced.

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Chava Gourarie is a freelance writer based in New York and a former CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter at @ChavaRisa

TOP IMAGE: Mourners attend a candlelight vigil in front of the Dr. P. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Orlando