covering terror

World Trade Center. Dubrovka. Beslan. Kings Cross. Oslo. Boston. Peshawar. Paris. Brussels. Orlando. If you work in daily news, every so often you will find yourself covering a breaking terror story that requires all hands on deck. When I worked for a newswire, it fell to me to write up the 2007 Finnish school shooting (Jokela), and update it over two days of rolling rewrites. My colleagues who supervised me on that story had worked on the Finnish suicide bomber story in 2002 – a chemistry student who blew himself up in the middle of a crowd of kids in a shopping mall as they watched a clown blow up balloons. I know, really sick. They always are. The next year we had the 2008 Finnish school shooting (Kauhajoki), which I did not work on because I was out of town at a company investor meeting. Though Kauhajoki was quite remote and nobody seemed to be from there, everyone spent the coffee break calling home. And I was on duty the evening of the 2011 Norwegian terror attacks when every reporter in the Nordic countries helped chase up bits and pieces by phone and send them back to Oslo.

After these I developed a model for the terror news cycle. Broadly, terror stories in places that are not accustomed to this kind of violence seem to move through four stages:

1. WTF? The first news is likely to be vague (gunshots were heard) or unbelievable (a plane has flown into the World Trade Center).

This is how the 2014 Sydney hostage crisis first appeared on the Sydney Morning Herald newsfeed:

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Eyewitnesses, speculators, other news outlets will pump out contradictory information for quite a few hours afterward. If you are covering the story, wait out the contradictions. It is better to be late than wrong. Avoid spreading rumors and seeding contagion panics. Help quash these when they are proven groundless.

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Attribute everything. Of course ring round and try to piece the story together, but it is best to delay giving injury and body counts until you have official statements from the police. The counts will probably need incremental updating later, unfortunately.

In the Norway attacks, I recall a tabloid website quoting a politician as blaming the attacks on immigrants. It was a good call to leave it alone, both to avoid sowing hate and because the perpetrator turned out to be a homegrown nutbar (as were the perpetrators in the Finnish cases mentioned). That story disappeared from view fairly quickly.

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During the Sydney siege, the Sydney Morning Herald wrongly reported that the airspace over the city had been closed and had to correct it. The correction was thorough and did not blame a source, so it’s impossible to know how the information came to be wrongly reported. The lesson to remember is: if you get information from other means than eyewitnessing, always attribute it. Then if it’s wrong, it’s the source’s mistake from the point of view of truth, and yours at most from the point of view of judgment in trusting the source.

I am not trying to dump on the SMH here. They were pros. The airspace misstatement endangered no one, making it a venial rather than mortal sin as these things go, and it was the only thing they had to correct in what must have been hours and hours of confused and hysterical inputs, sorted and written up clearly in real time against a backbrain howl of WTF? Credible news organizations earn their keep in these hours simply by filtering out the noise and boosting the signal of what the authorities need to communicate in order to manage the situation and dial down the panic.

2. A nation mourns. The morning-after story is likely be about the flags at half staff, the moment of silence, the statements from leaders, the slowdown and cancellation of activities as people absorb the shock. Latterly it is also about the shoals of flowers and candles at impromptu shrines, the instant memes on social media, the tributes paid in the course of previously scheduled events.

3. $NATION: what went wrong? Finland, what went wrong? Norway, what went wrong? Australia, what went wrong? How could such a thing happen here? Obviously, in some places terror attacks are so common as not to be shocking news, and that is a different kind of tragedy. Countries that are safe and prosperous will have to ask themselves some new questions.

Interestingly, American gun massacres seem to bring out the “what went wrong?” question no matter how often they occur. While bombs seem wellnigh impossible to prevent, it is pretty clear that outlawing ownership of guns, particularly those that are easy to load and reload, would cut down on the number of gun massacres. Yet “what went wrong?” stories have not led the public sphere to a consensus of, “Never again – we’ll criminalize guns.” Unarmed lives, it seems, don’t matter. Or rather, they usually don’t matter; but John Lewis and his fellow congresscritters have just held a gun control sit-in on the floor of the House following the 2016 Orlando nightclub shootings (the list of categories at the end of that Wikipedia entry is instructive). Watch this space after the summer recess.

4. The search for retribution. Most often the perpetrator has killed himself as well as his victims, but some sort of legal process will unfold in an effort to give bureaucratic and, for the families, emotional closure. This process forms the news pegs for most subsequent stories. Anniversaries of the killings are another, sparser pegline.

It may be that the increasing compression and presentism of news is eliminating clear “cycles” and collapsing these story types; I am collecting some data to test this Nevertheless, this four-step model is what I taught the journalism students. You don’t want to plan to cover stories like this. But stay in the general news business long enough, and you’ll probably have to.

Posted on by Diana ben-Aaron
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