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