Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Critiquing Coverage of the Fort Hood Shootings

This Stuff Isn’t Easy

Critiquing local television coverage of the horrific rampage at Fort Hood is tricky. Nobody. Nobody can truthfully prepare fully for an event such as this. Also, reporters, photojournalists, and news managers have worked their tails off, all with pure intentions of doing the best job of reporting truth. As a former reporter who has been sent into such hells, I understand, and I would take it personally if somebody sitting on the sidelines proffered an unfair critique.

So, my opinions will be general. Some observations may be seen by some as station-specific. That’s hard to avoid. Knowing that some reporters spent the weekend worn-out and ill and others worked the weekend with weak and hoarse voices, what I write is not meant to hurt. It is meant to help. God forbid something similar to this should happen again, but journalistic lessons that may be learned from the tragic event at Fort Hood.

It is true that spot news coverage in this age is different because social media is an important tool, but there are dangers. Twitter and Facebook notwithstanding watching local coverage of the Fort Hood shooter this week, I came to the conclusion that there has been very little progress in the past ten years, the Internet and social media notwithstanding.

The main thing that bothered me was some of the outlandish speculation from the local level all of the way up to the cable and networks. Tweets and FB are useful, but they are close kin to emergency radio scanner traffic in a fluid, spot-news situation. Scanner broadcasts indicate that law enforcement and emergency services are on the way, but they may not know the full story. So, what one hears on a scanner may or may not be fact. The same can be said for social media.

There were some tweets and Facebook messages coming from inside the post. Some were very useful, including the name of the suspect, but others were antidotal and mostly hearsay. The media had so few hard facts since the scene was secured on post. (The Department of Defense did supply scene video relatively soon after the shootings.) Even the commanding general had to correct himself later. So, reporters and anchors were asked to find something, even if it meant doing stories about the “media city” set up at the front gate.

Predictably, politicians rushed to the cameras. Only one, Senator John Cornyn (R.) had the presence of mind to say that he was “not going to be a source” until he had the facts. Novel idea. He’s a former Texas attorney general and Supreme Court justice. So, the media from local to national had trouble finding credible sources. “Facts” provided by some politicians also proved wrong. What’s a reporter or anchor to do?

So, the repetition was numbing at all levels from local to national with contradictions in “facts” during the same news segment from Austin to New York City. At the local level I asked myself, “Where are the fact-checkers, producers, and executive producers? Isn’t somebody watching the flow?” Yes, I know that all hell had broken loose, but somebody at the TV station needs to have a cool head. I don’t know if the local stations had the luxury of a field producer to coordinate coverage at the scene. It didn’t look like it if they did.

I also think that many local stations lack mature and experienced reporters nowadays since so many of them have been laid-off, run-off, retired, or ran screaming from the room and out of the news business. Each local station had at least one experience reporter at the scene, some more experienced than others. The best live shot I saw the evening of the shootings, however, was by a chief photographer for an Austin station here. He was calm, succinct, cogent, and informative. He also has more experienced than most of the reporters.

There were bright spots. A few young reporters also kept their heads and did some really good stuff—mostly on the day after the shootings. One station, in particular, seemed send more people to Fort Hood than any other. My philosophy is much the same as fighting a fire: Send lots of people and then, back off as needed. In this case all were needed.

Finally, it seems to me that few stations if any had procedures in place for covering a story of this magnitude. Often, these plans and procedures were informal in that news managers had worked together for a long time and knew what the other ones were going to do. Now, many of those news managers are gone, and with them those synergies also left the building. So, now, stations might need to debrief and rethink how to handle big breaking news. Thankfully, these things don’t happen often.

Without a doubt, all did the best they could, not for themselves or their stations, but this time in particular for the public interest. We all can always do better.

© Jim McNabb, 2009


Diane said...

Jim, don't be afraid to name names and be specific. Your readers shouldn't have to guess which stations or reporters you are hinting at in this critique. You've got your credibility, so use it!

NewsMcNabb said...

Editor's Note: Yeah, another colleague, said much the same.

I was just putting myself in the reporters and anchor’s shoes. They’ve been working really hard. I didn’t want to put them down.

If I’d waited a while, perhaps I could have named names and been specific, but I felt like I should have something on the record now. Perhaps I’ll do a follow-up and name names.

This post was really about the speculation that was rampant. Social media have been credited as the next big thing (See Iran.), but it really wasn’t that helpful at Fort Hood. Also, it was about the lack of direction caused, I think, by the lack of experience on station staffs. These are applicable to all stations.

Thanks for reading what I write.


Chris Wilkinson said...

Hey Jim,

An interesting side note to the social media aspect... from MJ's death to Ft. Hood I've been learning of these breaking news stories first from Facebook or other "mobile app" based technology. My iPhone is with me 24/7 and buzzes with alerts day and night. Sometimes it's an e-mail, sometimes it's breaking news. The funny thing is, after I read former colleague Mike Wortham's Facebook post about the Ft. Hood shooting I went online looking for more info. KXAN was first to have anything at all, and it was not much. I then looked to the locals for cut-ins... nada. I tuned to the news networks, by then they were starting up with the earliest reports. Hours after first learning about the shooting, the traditional sources of news offered very little. The online and social sites had much more, even if it had to be cleared up later.

I enjoy the discourse, keep it up!
Chris Wilkinson

Lance said...

This incident was a "nearly" for me as the Ku truck was tied down at a football game. My Son had seen an OTA cut in at 1:40 and called to see if I had heard about this. Watching CNN and the Houston affiliates,
the first live material out was from the WFAA helicopter. News 8 and others soon had a truck somewhere near or on base.
I could only think about how hard this would be to cover. Everybody did a great job, considering the location and the lockdown.
Ft. Hood got a press conference organized in short order, which was impressive and professional considering the situation.
The whole thing looked like an exercise in the hardest type of situation to cover. Overall it was
well done by everyone under extreme conditions.

The Hypervigilant Observer said...

What shocked me was that KEYE continued doing fluff at 4 p.m on the day of the shooting...while KXAN cut-into its regular programming and got both anchors involved in live coverage...even if it was sometimes only MSNBC.
KVUE also continued scheduled programming.

Consequently, I won't turn to KEYE or KVUE for breaking news coverage.
They have lost my trust!

I'll go directly to KXAN.

Lex Wadelski

Shawn Rutherford said...

Great write-up Jim, and although I am biased to the station which employs me, I must say that we DID have full-coverage while other stations were running regular programming. KXAN recognized the magnitude of the story and presented it as more important than what was originally scheduled to air. To be fair, I can imagine it would be a difficult decision as to whether you should break in on Oprah. I would think the phone receptionist would have been miserable fielding those calls.

Although there is a lot of buzz about the immediacy of FB and Twitter, I too agree that they are little more than means to parlay gossip, unproven data and opinions. It is, as you say, scanner traffic/chatter, but scanners and social media are vastly different in a particular matter. Scanners are merely a means to listen to multiple channels of radio conversations of public servants, be they police, fire, ems or other. They are actual participants in a situation, trying to establish control in a safe manner for all involved. FB and Twitter don't monitor the "trusted servant" but are just a simple/cheap/easy way for anyone with access to the internet, to broadcast short unsubstantiated messages. Some of these are very useful, say for weather, news updates, traffic, etc., but as in the Fort Hood case, it would have been better had the user just shut their phone off. They only offered false information and that is questionably criminal. HIPAA and hospital cell phone policies were apparently violated. Regardless of whether this person was civilian, civilian contractor, civilian employee or regular active-duty, rules on-base are the law. I'm curious to know more on how the military will react to this.

I'm former military, so I hold an attachment to and respect for those who wear the uniform. It was a shame to see the victims and their families subjected to misinformation from these social media venues. This can only contribute to further distrust of the media, by the people.

Shawn Rutherford