Posts Tagged ‘Mass Shootings’


Video: The Balance Between Necessary and Excess

Photo illustration of an antique television set.

(via Flicker Creative Commons/cpkatie)

Journalists and news organizations have been intensively covering Sunday’s shooting at the Mandalay Bay hotel in Las Vegas. At least 58 people were killed and over 500 were injured as spectators enjoyed a festival of country music.

At the core of the coverage has been user-generated content – eyewitness footage of the shootings. The sounds of gunfire and the anxious screams of the festival goers have been replayed on cable and network news broadcasts.

These videos played a significant role on Wednesday’s CBS Evening News. The footage was aired continuously without any advisory warning of their graphic nature.

The Society’s Code of Ethics reminds journalists to seek truth and report it, but also minimize harm. There are arguments for and against the replaying of this footage.

On one hand, the footage underscores the gravity of the situation and emphasizes the scale of what happened on Sunday night. On the other hand, the repetition of such videos can be seen as sensationalism – a way to utilize drama and to encourage viewers to stay tuned to the broadcast.

Striking the right balance between the necessary and the excess is tricky. Journalists and news organizations usually exercise discretion when it comes to how much of that footage will make up the eventual coverage.

The Code encourages journalists to consider the public when it comes to broadcasting graphic footage. “Balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort,” the Code reads. “Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.”

There are three goals to keep in mind when covering these types of events:

  1. Verify the footage before it goes to air.
    If the video is submitted by social media, take the time to interview the creator and after determining the authenticity how it will help your story.
  2. Consider the public when broadcasting footage – and ask this question: “How much is too much?” as you plan your coverage.
  3. Be forthright with your audience.
    If the video is graphic or may upset a viewer, please state that the footage may be disturbing to some audiences, instead of just putting it on the air.

Graphic elements are sometimes necessary to tell stories. It isn’t done to scare people or to put them off. Instead, it is to help understand the story and the scale of events. An undue reliance on the footage has an impact on the public – and their relationship with the media.

Journalists should – as a result – think twice about using the footage and how it is presented, and be honest with the audience. You’ll ensure credibility and promote quality ethical journalism.


Alex Veeneman is a freelance journalist in Minneapolis and a member of SPJ’s Ethics and FOI Committees. The views expressed are that of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Committee, the board and staff of the Society of Professional Journalists, or its members.

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Harnessing Energy for Change

Flickr Creative Commons

Flickr Creative Commons

There is a lively conversation about how journalists should cover traumatic events, and it’s time to harness that energy to facilitate change.


Wednesday’s post about the movement to omit the names and images of gunmen from news stories elicited a strong online response. People offered their various opinions on how journalists should cover traumatic events. While those opinions differ, responsible journalism is the shared goal.

The Society of Professional Journalists works each day to encourage and promote responsible journalism through its Code of Ethics, which is widely viewed as the industry’s standard. The reason it’s so widely accepted and referenced is that – at least in its current form – it’s the result of hours of discussions, public input and review.

The same rigor that serves as the foundation for the Society’s code should be applied to the conversation surrounding the coverage of traumatic events. The result will be an evidence- and practice-based document that provides journalists with guidelines for covering events spanning from suicides, natural disasters, domestic terrorism and mass shootings.

In the coming months, I’ll be working to bring together a group of journalists, journalism organizations, news organizations, ethicists, researchers, victim rights advocates and key interest groups. My hope is that the group will meet in person over two days to discuss best practices and create the document. Then, it will be open for public comment and discussion before its final adoption by members of the working group.

Then, an education campaign will be needed to disseminate the guidelines and inform journalists of their importance.

This will not happen overnight, however. To ensure this process is a success, there will need to be a lot of work and cooperation between different people, groups and organizations.  I hope to have an update soon, and that will be posted to this blog.

If you’d like to be part of the working group, please feel free to sign up for more information below:


Andrew M. Seaman is the chair of the Society’s ethics committee.

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Ignoring a Problem Doesn’t Make It Go Away

image1A growing list of organizations say journalists should omit the names and images of gunmen in an effort to prevent future mass shootings.


The Brady Campaign, which works to prevent gun violence, launched on Wednesday the “Zero Minutes of Fame” tool for Google’s Chrome internet browser. The tool, which is accompanied by an ad and a petition directed at the media, replaces the names and faces of mass shooters in news stories with the names and images of their victims.

The theory is that omitting the names and images of gunmen stops future mass shootings by eliminating the possibility of fame.

Other organizations like No Notoriety promote a similar message, which is supported by the Society’s professional chapter in Florida.

While well-meaning, these initiatives are based on anecdotal and preliminary evidence, and may result in unintended consequences. The goal should be more responsible reporting – not less reporting.

Instead of completely omitting the names and images of gunmen, advocates should challenge news organizations to be especially cautious when reporting on breaking news – including mass shootings. News organizations should shun speculation and report verified facts. Additionally, news organizations should be judicious in how the images of mass shooters are portrayed to readers and viewers.

The Society encourages these practices through its Code of Ethics.

Going the extreme route of eliminating any mentions and images of gunmen could lead to a chilling effect that ultimately moves coverage of gun violence off the front page and out of the public’s conscious. Typically, ignoring a problem isn’t a successful solution.

The science underpinning the movement is also far from conclusive. The most notable study supporting the theory that mass shootings are “contagious” was published online in July. The study, which was published by researchers from Arizona State University, suggests that 20 to 30 percent of shootings involving four or more victims are tied to a previous mass shooting. The study is retrospective and observational, and can’t prove cause and effect. Also, the study can’t make any conclusions about the possible role of news coverage.

In absence of a substantially larger body of evidence linking the use of gunmen’s names and images to an increased risk of mass shootings, the goal should be to encourage more responsible reporting of all  facts.

People have a right to information – whether joyful or unpleasant. Providing people with accurate information is the foundation of journalism and democracy.


Andrew M. Seaman is the chair of the Society’s ethics committee.

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GUEST POST: SPJ’s San Bernardino statement still doesn’t state much

While I am typically the only person who posts to this blog, I’m always happy to entertain guest posts and analyses. In this case, SPJ D.C. Pro Board Member Gideon Grudo took issue with the Society’s response to journalists’ behavior following this month’s mass shooting in San Bernardino, California. After his initial post on the Region 2 blog, I offered him an opportunity to share his thoughts here. – Andrew M. Seaman, SPJ’s ethics chair


By Gideon Grudo

Before anything else: Andrew Seaman has graciously let me use this ethics blog to post a critique of this ethics blog (in so many words, anyway—you’ll see). That’s awesome and so is he.

Twelve days after the San Bernardino apartment crawl on MSNBC, this is still all SPJ has said about it

Journalists should feel free to investigate stories when and where possible. They need to minimize harm in their reporting, however. Walking into a building and live broadcasting the pictures, addresses and other identifying information of children or other people who may have no involvement in the story does not represent best and ethical practices.

…kinda. That’s not even SPJ’s statement (if you want to call it that). It’s SPJ’s ethics chair’s statement. His name is Andrew Seaman. In an email, Seaman told me that—before his time—“SPJ started using blogs and other types of statements to respond to things like San Bernardino.”

“In this case, it’s a Friday afternoon when a lot of people were out of contact. I can’t summon the SPJ board, but I can use my voice as its ethics chair. So, I do not speak for the entire organization, but I can express my opinion,” he wrote me in a later email. “So, as the headline says: Statement from SPJ Ethics chair…”

Okay. But does the public know all this? Cutting red tape is always a good idea. Who really cares whether SPJ the institution speaks out or someone SPJ’s president chose to chair its ethics committee speaks out?

However, no one knows the difference if we’re not clear about it. It’s confusing, too.

Last Tuesday, when Seaman (who’s a volunteer putting lots of hours into this, by the by) released his analysis of the apartment crawl broadcast, a former Florida chapter president asked me on Facebook if I was “appeased.”

Nope, I replied. Why? Because an analysis isn’t a statement (or a follow up to a statement, or anything related to a statement), and an ethics blog isn’t a place where SPJ says whatever official thing it needs to say.

That is, unless it says so in big bold letters, like this: HOLLER: THIS BLOG IS HOW WE SAY WHATEVER OFFICIAL THING WE NEED TO SAY. SIGNED, SPJ. Or something like that.

So what do I want? I’m not looking for some San Bernardino coverage justice. That’s just an example I’ve almost definitely overused at this point. I’m more focused on the next instance, which will inevitably and unfortunately come knocking: I want us to say what we mean.

Maybe we don’t want to say anything, in which case we shouldn’t issue pseudo-statements.

How do we issue statements about which we may know little but also about which the public is curious and confused? Easy, we (a chair or a regional director or whoever we trust) tell the truth in three simple steps:

  1. This is what we know (journalism is good/journalism is bad)
    1. MSNBC done effed up
  2. This is what we don’t know
    1. Other outlets may have been involved
  3. This is what we’re going to do about it (an analysis, an angry letter, a sit-in, a peaceful protest, a boycott, maybe nothing)
    1. We’re going to analyze the s$%^ out of this and tell you all about it in the coming days so you’re more aware.

Seaman’s analysis is great at telling us that what happened was ethical or unethical. It doesn’t tell us what should be done about it.

Well, except this:

The best advice would be for the offenders to implement new editorial strategies to prevent these kinds of mistakes in the future, but I can only write that advice so many times. Instead, it’s imperative that other journalists call out unethical journalism whenever and wherever possible.

Nice. Whenever possible is now. Wherever possible is here.

 

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Ho, ho, hoax – Marie Christmas

@JewyMarie's Twitter Posts

@JewyMarie’s Twitter Posts

Social media is a proverbial gold mine for journalists, but it’s also filled with landmines.


A number of eyewitness accounts were sent out on Twitter as news about the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, emerged on Wednesday. One post that caught my eye on Twitter was from the handle @JewyMarie, who is also known as Marie Christmas.

“I saw the shooter shooting people in San Bernardino,” @JewyMarie posted. “I’m scared for my life at the moment in hiding.”

In the end, accounts of the shooting from @JewyMarie made it into reports from the AP (and The New York Times as a result), the International Business Times and an on-air interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper.

There is obviously a person behind @JewyMarie’s Twitter account, but the person’s accounts of events are fake.

While embarrassing, the ordeal is a reminder that a person’s word is not proof. People lie. Anonymous people on the Internet lie – a lot.

Steve Buttry, director of student media at Louisiana State University and tireless blogger of journalism practices, uncovered the fabrication while following up with @JewyMarie. You can read his full account (and a few of my comments) here: http://bit.ly/1ItAb4C

As Buttry’s post points out, I had my doubts about @JewyMarie.

Specifically, the account itself is anonymized. The profile picture is of a cartoon. There are no messages or descriptions that explain who the person is or where they live. The existing messages aren’t anything of substance either.

Additionally, @JewyMarie responded to people asking for interviews by saying they didn’t have a phone and was using wireless Internet to post. “I can’t do audio interviews,” they posted.

For that to be true, the person would likely need to be using an Internet-connected iPad or tablet for Twitter updates, which the @JewyMarie account had been doing right before the post about seeing “the shooter.” The other option is the person fleeing the scene was using a laptop.

Taken together, these facts alone should make journalists doubt the person is an eyewitness. Admittedly, it’s not impossible they’re an eyewitness, but it’s unlikely.

Without additional verification from a person that proves they are an eyewitness, journalists should move on. Stories about mass killings are too big and too important to the public for journalists to blindly trust an anonymous Internet user, who apparently gets their kicks from making light of mass murder.

If journalists are often told to investigate their own mothers’ love, they should apply that standard to random people on the Internet.

As for organizations that fell for the ruse, the newsrooms shouldn’t waste time scolding anonymous Twitter users with questionable consciences. The best path forward is for the journalists to admit the mistake, correct the record and implement strategies to prevent these occurrences in the future.


Andrew M. Seaman is chair of the ethics committee for the Society of Professional Journalists.

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