Insider Advice for Reporters Covering Active Shooters, Hostage Takers, Etc.

By Calibre Press  |   Oct 23, 2019

As intense critical incidents play out you can bet cameras will be rolling, social media will be exploding and reporters will be swarming. Think back and it’s a safe bet you can remember a time when you watched – in real-time – terrified people, maybe even young students, streaming out of a building while tactical teams maneuvered to engage an active shooter. In essence, the pool of viewers, which could include the suspects themselves if they have access to a TV, radio or the Internet, were receiving real-time intelligence on what tac teams were doing.

We all know this kind of “Adrenalin reporting” is common. But is it dangerous? Can it pose serious threats to officers and others involved in the incident and inhibit law enforcement’s ability to resolve the situation quickly and effectively?

The answer is yes. Thankfully, the Radio Television Digital News Association, the world’s largest professional organization devoted exclusively to broadcast and digital journalism understands that.

In an earlier interview with Calibre Press, then President, Barbara Cochran, who now serves as President Emeritus on the Association’s Board of Directors, shared some of the organization’s thinking.

“Reporters have a job to do and that’s report the news, often as it happens,” she said. “But we are aware that reporters’ live coverage of massive, on-going events like school shootings may have an impact on what law enforcement is doing to resolve the situation.

“For example, we are aware that broadcasting the location of SWAT teams preparing to enter a building where a hostage situation is taking place could endanger the officers’ mission—or even worse, their lives or the lives of the hostages—if the gunman inside has access to a television. Likewise, broadcasting information radio reporters have received on the approach officers will be taking to enter the building and/or when they will be making their approach could be counterproductive and dangerous if the threatening person has access to a radio and is listening to news reports.”

Continuing, Cochran candidly observed that the news business is extraordinarily competitive and the speed at which you get a breaking story out can have a tremendous impact on the news agency and the reporter. That kind of competitive pressure can push reporters to release any and all information they get as quickly as they get it in an attempt to be the first to get that story out. Admittedly, Cochran said, this may be done without thought for the ramifications broadcasting sensitive information can have on law enforcement.

With that in mind, the RTDNA released a list of recommendations for news professionals covering law enforcement events. “We surely are not interested in having law enforcement inhibit our ability to get OUR job of reporting the news completed,” said Cochran, “but at the same time we want to avoid inhibiting THEIR job of keeping people safe and resolving dangerous situations.”

Here is what the organization suggests in a list compiled by Bob Steele, a Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values at The Poynter Institute. We would be curious to know your thoughts.

While covering a developing raid or law enforcement action, journalists are advised to:

• Be extremely cautious to not compromise the secrecy of officials planning and execution. If staking out a location where a raid will occur or if accompanying officers, reporters and photographers should demonstrate great caution in how they act, where they go, and what clues they might inadvertently give that might compromise the execution of the raid. They should check and double-check planning efforts.

While covering an ongoing crisis situation, journalists are advised to:

• Always assume that the hostage-taker, gunman or terrorist has access to the reporting.

• Avoid describing with words or showing with still photography and video any information that could divulge the tactics or positions of SWAT team members.

• Fight the urge to become a player in any standoff, hostage situation or terrorist incident. Journalists should become personally involved only as a last resort and with the explicit approval of top news management and the consultation of trained hostage negotiators on the scene.

• Be forthright with viewers, listeners or readers about why certain information is being withheld if security reasons are involved.

• Seriously weigh the benefits to the public of what information might be given out versus what potential harm that information might cause. This is especially important in live reporting of an on-going situation.

• Strongly resist the temptation to telephone a gunman or hostage-taker. Journalists generally are not trained in negotiation techniques and one wrong question or inappropriate word could jeopardize someone’s life. Furthermore, just calling in could tie up phone lines or otherwise complicate communication efforts of the negotiators.

• Notify authorities immediately if a hostage-taker or terrorist calls the newsroom. Also, have a plan ready for how to respond.

• Challenge any gut reaction to go live from the scene of a hostage-taking crisis unless there are strong journalistic reasons for a live, on-the-scene report. Things can go wrong very quickly in a live report, endangering lives or damaging negotiations. Furthermore, ask if the value of a live, on-the-scene report is justifiable compared to the harm that could occur.

• Give no information, factual or speculative, about a hostage-takers mental condition, state of mind or reasons for actions while a standoff is in progress. The value of such information to the audience is limited, and the possibility of such characterizations exacerbating an already dangerous situation is quite real.

• Give no analyzes or comments on hostage-takers or terrorist demands. As bizarre or ridiculous (or even legitimate) as such demands may be, it is important that negotiators take all demands seriously.

• Keep news helicopters out of the area where the standoff is happening, as their noise can create communication problems for negotiators and their presence could scare a gunman to deadly action.

• Do not report information obtained from police scanners. If law enforcement personnel and negotiators are compromised in their communications, their attempts to resolve a crisis are greatly complicated.

• Be very cautious in any reporting on the medical condition of hostages until after a crisis is concluded. Also, be cautious when interviewing hostages or released hostages while a crisis continues.

• Exercise care when interviewing family members or friends of those involved in standoff situations. Make sure the interview legitimately advances the story for the public. It should not simply be conducted for the shock value of the emotions conveyed or as a conduit for the interviewee to transmit messages to specific individuals.

• Go beyond the basic story of the hostage-taking or standoff to report on the larger issues behind the story. Examine the how and why of what happened, report on the preparation and execution of the SWAT team or the issues related to the incident.

Thoughts to share? Things to add?

Feel free to e-mail us at [email protected]


Related stories:

Stay in Your Lane! It’s Not Your News to Break.


 

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Calibre Press has 37 years in the business of keeping officers safer, smarter and more successful, from rookie to retirement.
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