It started out like any other day at K-Small, a 5000 watt member station in Smallville, America. It was a mellow morning — the national network show running with some local inserts until 10 a.m. At the 9 a.m. news meeting there were three top stories: a tornado watch, a controversial art exhibit called “Religion Sucks,” and a press release from Smallville State College saying that last month’s test of the campus-wide emergency alert system went well.
The quiet before the storm.
Throughout the day, Smallville would encounter a situation that has become frighteningly familiar around the country — multiple gunmen, multiple casualties, accusations of terrorism, confusion and alarm on social media.
According to the Washington Post, there were more than 355 mass shootings in the United States in 2015 alone. And this month saw the deadliest mass shooting in American history, in Orlando.
About a hundred news directors and other public media journalists filled a conference room for a role-play scenario — what do you do if Smallville is your 'ville?
The role-play was designed by NPRs overnight news desk manager John Stempin. He designed the exercise to be as realistic as possible, complete with confusion on social media, competition with other media outlets, multiple pressing stories, a university campus on lockdown, pressure from the national network, and even some in-house incompetence.
There are six main phases of active shooter coverage, Stempin says:
Here comes the fog: There are strong hints that something is wrong, but few tangible facts.
The first good picture: The first official acknowledgement of an active shooter. Local media gears up and begins live coverage.
The avalanche of info: Information comes flooding in from all directions. “Remember that even our best people - reporters and sources - will give you bad information. Well-inentioned people get it wrong in the beginning,” Stempin says. This is often themes difficult stage for a local newsroom to manage.
The avalanche of pundits: The cable news outlets trot out their pundits to fill time. Everything is speculation. If people are not careful opinions end up as “facts.” Local newsrooms wonder — how does the network have so much information?
The waiting: First responders continue to do their job, but from a relaxed position. Newsrooms might be informed on background when the situation is over. This stage can last for several hours.
The briefing: The first official word on what has happened. It’s not unusual for the briefing to contradict previously reported “facts.” It is also not unusual for the briefing to offer a different picture of events than may have been described earlier by official sources.
Linnea Edmeier from Capital Public Radio was chosen to play the news director. She credited her cool, calm demeanor in this role to her previous job as a fire captain. For 17 years she fought fires in California, and learned how to manage large groups of people in stressful and dangerous situations. But she says she still gets anxious about covering active shooters. “My first thought isn’t about our coverage. It’s how do I make sure that none of my reporters end up casualties themselves.” she said.
Best Practices (provided by John Stempin):
Have a written crisis plan and give a copy in advance to everyone. Practice it and update it at least once a year.
Begin to apply your most skeptical breaks early. Challenge every “fact.” Realize your best sources will unintentionally communicate bad information.
All sources, no matter how reliable or official, should be challenged on all facts. Poynter suggests if they don’t have direct knowledge of events, treat their information as suspect.
Notify your superiors as soon as possible that crisis coverage may be needed. Explain the situation is fluid and you’re seeking more information. Their cooperation will increase with longer lead times.
Tipping your studio host in advance to crisis coverage is a case by case basis.
If your station is on a college campus, have a written agreement or plan about what role your station and newsroom has in campus emergencies. If appropriate, include campus officials you may be working with in crisis coverage in your annual planning and rehearsals.
If you are a university licensee and the incident is on campus, you risk being trapped in studio during a lockdown. At the first sign of trouble, send a reporter to a safe place away from campus, if possible, until they might be dispatched to somewhere useful. If you already have someone in the field on a different story, alert them to the situation and have them divert to where you need them.
On air, never assume an active shooter’s motivation until authorities disclose it. It may be terror, it may be someone local with emotional problems, it could be a domestic situation, a lost job, or any number of other things. It’s best not to speculate, even if everyone else is.
Devote one person to file for the network in the early moments of a crisis. Give them relative autonomy.
Have a clear policy established about who controls your homepage and social media accounts in a crisis. The policy should specify who will do the content filing.
Assume all social media is false until proven otherwise.
Treat anyone who has knowledge of the gunman most skeptically. This applies both before and after the official naming of a suspect(s).
If you have someone to spare, put them in charge of monitoring all news unrelated to the crisis. If you can, use someone seasoned who can spot unique or sketchy information. If you don’t have someone to spare, Twitter is your best way to see what others are reporting at a glance.
Make sure you have the direct emails of all network contacts.
If the facts of a crisis coverage situation change substantially, immediately contact your NPR bureau chief, the newscast unit, and the show if applicable.
If you see obvious signs police posture has relaxed, it’s okay to report that on the air but do not draw conclusions.
Assume at some point cell phone service will become unreliable. Service fails usually in this order: voice, data, text. It’s better for your staff to carry two cells into the field, preferably on different networks. Always have power banks and charging cords in your kit or crash bags ready to go.
Corroborate anything you hear or see another media, regardless of the source. Where this is not possible, use every couching word you can and hang the story on the outfit making the initial report.
You are unlikely to handle a claim of responsibility directly. In reporting a claim, consider the new organization reporting the claim and how it’s sourced. If it comes from a website, go look for yourself. Hang it on the initial agency making the report. Note: Shooters and their organizations “claim responsibility,” they do NOT “take credit.” Taking credit assumes their action achieved something positive.