Reporters continue to cover Parkland closely—but at what cost?

Last week, more than a year after a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, killed 17 people and in the wake of two apparent suicides by students, the town opened a new center dedicated to to students’ mental health. When Amber Jamieson, a breaking news reporter for BuzzFeed News, got to the Eagles Haven center on Tuesday, there was a note on the door telling media not to enter, and instead to attend a press conference the next day. “It was very unusual; you don’t normally have a, ‘Hey media, don’t enter, we’re having a press conference at a later time’” announcement, says Jamieson, who has covered the aftermath of other shootings. At one point during Wednesday’s press conference, which was composed of mostly local media, many of whom had video cameras, Julie Gordon, the program director for the center, asked those present to stop filming.

From there, the presser devolved into a conversation among local reporters, many of whom have been covering Parkland since the shooting last February. Like members of the community, Jamieson says, the local reporters had grown exhausted of covering the shooting’s aftermath—it was their editors who wanted the footage and B-roll for news stories. “Can you call our news directors? Because we don’t want to cover this either,” Jamieson recalls one of them saying. “I was very surprised that local news media, a year later, was still covering Parkland like this”—that is, like a breaking news story—Jamieson tells CJR. “Part of breaking news is calling people who have just lost loved ones and having conversations with them. I’m very familiar with interviewing people in traumatic situations; sometimes people do want to talk to you in those situations, but other times, they don’t.”

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Jamieson’s own story was about the two young people who killed themselves following the anniversary of the shooting. While reporting it, she heard over and over again how the media and camera presence that still exists outside of Marjory Stoneman Douglas is triggering for the student and teacher survivors of the shooting. “Five parents had spoken to staff at the center about their fears of TV cameras being at their children’s school when they return Monday,’” Jamieson wrote in her dispatch. “‘Which would make it reminiscent of February of last year, and the parents and teachers are really concerned about that,’ said [program director] Julie Gordon. ‘There are kids that don’t want to go to school because they don’t want to see the cameras.’” Jamieson says she understood Gordon’s requests, and is also sympathetic to local news reporters, who can be replaced if they decide to stop filming against their news directors’ wishes. “I understand one of the benefits of print is I’m not as reliant on having background image, that video. It’s harder for TV, because they need the visuals. There’s a lot of pressure for the most intense visual possible, even if it’s distressing for the individual,” she tells CJR.

In reporting on tragedy, reporters must strike a balance between doing their jobs and avoiding media feeding frenzies or unintentionally triggering survivors. That balance is tenuous, as Jamieson saw firsthand at Parkland last week when local leaders asked media to turn off their cameras. Today she thinks the best possible thing reporters can do is to practice empathy when they report: spend more time than you otherwise would interviewing a survivor, and understand that reporting on tragedy is more than finding a good soundbite and disappearing, story in hand. Not doing the latter can make already traumatized sources feel exploited or triggered by having to reshare the specifics of what they experienced with a near-stranger. “You have to give time for people to share their story and make them think you’re not going to screw them,” Jamieson says. “It’s worth it to have a longer conversation or staying a few extra days somewhere. Just to make it clear that you’re not like, Hi, give me a depressing quote about what happened to you, OK, now I’m leaving.”

More on covering tragedy:

  • “How many young journalists, having just arrived in their newsrooms, are told that knocking on the doors of shooting victims’ families and staking out the homes of people in crisis, however uncomfortable, is an essential part the job—even a moment of professional passage?” CJR’s Nausicaa Renner and Alexandria Neason wrote in September in the wake of Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony on her sexual assault by Brett Kavanaugh. “We are taught to push past the inevitable discomfort, to ignore the triggering of our internal barometers of empathy, and then to wear that feat as badge of honor.”
  • “Reporters who themselves feel emotionally supported are likely to be more respectful, and more effective, when interviewing victims and their families,” wrote CJR’s Jon Allsop in after the shooting in 2017 in Sutherland Springs, Texas. More respectful coverage, he argues, is possible.
  • Dave Cullen, author of a recent book about the Parkland students, tells CJR how he gained access during such a fraught time. “It was really joyful to be with them,” he says. “I would really get off the phone after doing marathon interviews and notice I was in an insanely good mood because what a privilege it was to go inside their heads and talk about what’s going on.
  • Parkland’s own student journalists wrestled with similar issues just after the shooting, with an unusual vantage point. “They don’t have to imagine the position their subjects are in, because they’re in it, too. They’re reporters and survivors,” wrote CJR’s Alexandria Neason and Meg Dalton last year.
  • After Christchurch, CJR used Media Cloud, an open-source media analysis tool developed at MIT’s Center for Civic Media and Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center, to analyze 6,337 stories from 508 national-level English-language news sources in New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States, to see how outlets complied with guidelines from groups that seek to limit the amplification of terrorist acts through media.
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Other notable stories:

  • In their coverage of major floods devastating large swaths of the midwest, ABC, CBS, and NBC completely failed to mention how climate change influences and affects historic and extreme weather events.
  • Al Jazeera recently published its three-year investigation into the National Rifle Association, including a first-person account from a reporter, who found out the NRA was teaching Australians to discredit gun violence survivors and advocates, and a piece outlining the NRA’s suggested media recommendations surrounding shootings.
  • In a report for the Tow Center, Sharon Ringel and Angela Woodall found that 19 of the 21 news organizations they studied didn’t have documented policies for preserving their web content; none were preserving their social media posts.
  • Gavin de Becker, Jeff Bezos’s security chief, wrote in a first-person report in The Daily Beast that AMI demanded he claim the National Enquirer story about Bezos didn’t result from hacking or external forces. De Becker says he’s confident the Saudis accessed Bezos’ phone. For CJR, read Susan Schmidt’s account of the possible Saudi storyline.
  • Facebook says it “mistakenly deleted” some of Zuckerberg’s old Facebook posts that were public and reported on, including a post about the Instagram acquisition, per Business Insider.
  • High Times was the flagship magazine of cannabis culture in the United States for decades, writes Britta Lokting in Medium’s OneZero. But the publication has struggled to keep up with a shifting culture, losing money, readers, and staff in recent years.
  • In a bid to increase support for local newsrooms across the country, the Knight Foundation has announced funding for three groups that help local news providers: $3.5 million for Institute for Nonprofit News, $1 million for LION, and $1.5 million for News Revenue Hub.

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Maya Kosoff is a freelance reporter based in New York City. She's written for Vanity Fair, The Washington Post, Allure, and Business Insider.