Monday, November 16, 2009

The Media and the Fort Hood Shootings

Final Report

All that is left is the grieving at Fort Hood and the suffering in surrounding communities. The “satellite city” set up by the mass media at the front gate has gone home, leaving behind some gut tearing pictures of sadness, loss, and grief—the aftermath of the horrific shootings there almost two weeks ago.

I rewind those images and know that I really don’t want to see them again. I feel like I’m violating the private moments of the families still struggling to get a grip on why their loved one was lost in an instant in a secure building on a gun-free Army post.

I know that no complete critique of the coverage of the Fort Hood shootings is possible. I was watching as much media as I could, not for the purposes of a critique, but for information. Of course, I found that since facts were few, reporting gave way to speculation, as I said in an earlier post. I return to it, because the wild speculation fuelled by the early texts and posts from inside Fort Hood and the unbelievable rush to the cameras by politicians are the most journalistically egregious flaws in coverage from local media to the networks and cable.

The media must rethink how to handle early reports of events. While social media had a meaningful contribution to the coverage, the early reports should be given no more, and possibly less, credibility than scanner traffic from emergency services radio. At least the emergency services have a clue about their emergency call. Tweets may be hearsay, rumor or even false from inside the closed post.

Nevertheless, the Austin American-Statesman made an early and smart decision to create an aggregate Twitter site, enabling readers to see the flow of messages and collate which ones seemed to be true and which ones weren’t. The Statesman also assigned top reporters with specific stories in mind. Even former or part time writers were part of their coverage. The newspaper has the biggest newsroom in town, and it really helps when all hell breaks loose. News managers at the Statesman also kept control of the story, not allowing reporting to go off on tangents. If Congressman Michael McCaul wanted to call the crimes an act of terrorism, the writers put the words in the Congressman’s mouth. If Congressman John Carter wanted to quote second-hand impressions of an aide who was somewhere on post at the time and inferred there was more than one shooter, the newspaper let those words come from him. Attribution is the way we do it. Even with the attrition at the Austin American-Statesman, there are still excellent journalists and photojournalists in the building.

KXAN TV (NBC) flooded Fort Hood, Killeen, and surrounding towns with staff members. Award-winning feature writer Jim Swift put on a sport coat and made solid contributions to their coverage through the eyes of experience. David Scott, Shannon Wolfson, and Jenny Hoff did superior live reporting. Erin Cargile found some fine back stories. Anchors Leslie Rhode and Robert Hadlock, who did field reporting in days following the shootings, were solid after a shaky start when they had little to go on. KXAN was the first station on the air with the unfolding story, and they stayed with it. Also, veteran producer John Thomas was at Fort Hood coordinating coverage. Many say that KXAN did the best job. If I were to say it, I’d been accused of playing favorites, so I’m going to source the comments made to my first post on this subject last week.

As I posted before, the best live shot the evening of the shootings was by an experienced journalist who is usually behind the camera, KEYE TV (CBS) chief photographer John Salazar was succinct, accurate, and informative. KEYE’s Gregg Watson was also an iron man, he may have been one of the first Austin reporters at Fort Hood.

Unfortunately, KEYE did not scrap its 4 O’clock lifestyle show the afternoon of the shootings. They had a live broadcast from 4-5 p.m. It was truly an odd juxtaposition going from fluff to death and back to fluff. Awkward. Viewers noticed too. KEYE must be ready to do news when the situation warrants. They must.

As usual, KVUE –TV (ABC) was rock steady. Seeing the magnitude of the story, news managers (probably News Director Frank Volpicella himself) sent co-anchor Tyler Sieswerda to the Fort Hood gates as a field anchor the first day. The veterans like Clara Tuma and Jim Bergamo were solid.

It seemed that KTBC TV (Fox 7)’s Rudy Koski was everywhere. He did several live shots for Fox News.

News 8’s video popped up on the national level many times.

No, this isn’t a comprehensive list of the reporters who worked the story. There were dozens more. I don’t mean to slight them; they worked their tails off as evidenced by the fact that some were losing their voices and others were downright sick after constant coverage.

This event proves to me once again the importance of local news. MSNBC was so wrong so many times in the first hours. CNN was into speculation. I love Campbell Brown, but she kept trying to get people to say things that they didn’t want to say. Fox actually did the best work the afternoon and evening of the shootings. For the most part, however, all of them were getting their information and some of their video (Scene video came from the Department of Defense!) from local stations. The networks and cable channels opened the doors to the politicians who shed more heat than light in most cases.

It was the local news that kept the constant camera on the front gates with quality reporters waiting to tell the story. It was an incredibly sad story.It was also a story of valor and courage. It was a day we wish we could forget, but we shouldn’t forget it and the lessons learned.

© Jim McNabb, 2009


djg said...

regarding KVUE-
Their coverage left much to be desired on day of shooting and the memorial service.
They barely broke in Thursday.
30-60 second updates while letting Gibson and ABC do all the heavy lifting. Actually the first ABC update on the shooting, they cut away from to air local ads.
As for the memorial service, they were the last ones on the air. When they did break in, they just popped the service up with no intro and then switched to ABC network and then switched back to local. Very poor coverage.
I am just tired of KVUE always getting the old excellent coverage line like its a function key on someone's typewriter. They make their share of mistakes and need to be called on it.

Anonymous said...

Providing excellent coverage is important, but what really counts -- when you get down to it -- is who got the biggest numbers in Nielsen, not necessarily who had the best coverage.