USA TODAY journalists get personal to combat claim that they love mass shootings

As part of their Trusting News work, USA TODAY Network journalists are sharing their own reflections on what it’s like to cover mass shootings.

Dana Loesch, NRA spokesperson, addressing the Conservative Political Action Conference. (Screengrab from CNN video.)

This comes in response to a claim from Dana Loesch, spokesperson for the National Rifle Association, that, “many in legacy media love mass shootings, you guys love it.”

That the character and motivations of journalists would be maligned so prominently is a sad fact of life. Even sadder is how many people cheer — or at least nod in agreement — when statements like that are made. The Poynter Media Trust Survey, released in December 2017 and summarized for Poynter by Craig Silverman, found more than 60 percent of respondents who identified as approving of President Donald Trump agreed with his statement that the media is an “enemy of the American people.”

Our Trusting News project is not designed to convince all those people to value and support journalism. If they have made up their minds that mainstream journalists fabricate information and also hate America, nothing USA TODAY journalists, or any journalists, say is likely to convince them.

But, right now, let’s not focus on them. Let’s talk instead about all those persuadable people out there who believe in facts. Let’s talk directly to the people in our communities who might not understand what we do but who want to be smart news consumers and are inclined to be reasonable.

Misassumptions run rampant around journalists’ motivations, missions and standards, and that’s a problem newsrooms need to be addressing. We need to tell our own stories, open up our processes for public scrutiny, and be specific (and redundant) in explaining what we’re up to and why.

USA TODAY is one of our partner newsrooms, with efforts led by Desair Brown. Their story is an effort at humanizing journalists. It’s an effort at reminding readers that while the country talks about “the media,” individual journalists are facing tragic situations with courage, sadness and a sense of purpose. Here is a look at some of their reflections.

Reporter Trevor Hughes covered his first mass shooting in Scotland in 1996:

During Dunblane, my assignment was to call the school and find out more details for a horrified world. Shocked at the task, I balked until my editor reminded me that it was my job to help the public understand. Provide trustworthy information. Put the incident in context. And hopefully, provide answers that might save lives the next time. Sadly, for 20 years, there’s always been a next time: Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, San Bernardino, Fort Hood, Aurora, etc.

Christal Hayes covered the Pulse nightclub shooting while she was a reporter at the Orlando Sentinel. She spoke directly to Loesch’s assertion that “crying white mothers are ratings gold.”

Christine Leinonen is someone who I’ll never forget. I met her that morning outside a hospital just a few blocks from the nightclub. She was looking for her son and his fiancé. In between sobs, she explained how she got the news of the shooting and that she couldn’t reach her son…. That “crying white mother” wasn’t ratings, as the NRA seems to think. I still feel her grief whenever I think back to that morning. I’ll never forget that punch in the gut when I saw a photo of her son, Christopher “Drew” Leinonen, on television news along with the 48 others who died that day.

Journalists are usually hesitant to turn the focus on themselves and their work, especially during times of tragedy when it can feel like a self-serving publicity stunt.

Here’s what Miami-based reporter Alan Gomez has to say in response:

What each of those families have endured is immeasurably worse than what we reporters experience. There is no comparison. And I’ve never discussed my experiences publicly because the focus should always remain on those victims and the loved ones they left behind. But we just got accused of loving mass shootings, so we felt it was important to explain how we really feel.

Getting stories like this through an editorial process takes buy-in and time. Brown said this story was a team effort. It was the brainchild of two members of the paper’s Trusting News team: USA TODAY’s Elizabeth Shell (social media visuals editor) and Anne Godlasky (social media editor), who decided to provide a platform for the subjects of Loesch’s attack to respond to it. They involved reporters (one of whom, Aamer Madhani, was returning from the Olympics) from across the Network. Josh Rivera from the Opinion section added the finishing touches.

The Radio Television Digital News Association, which has some members among our newsroom partners, contributed to the storytelling around journalism this week. The organization released a video denouncing the NRA’s character attack and reminding viewers that journalists are people — people who have a noble job to do. “We are journalists and we do what we do because you have a need to know and understand the world around you.”

With Trusting News strategies, we’re empowering journalists to actively earn trust with each day’s coverage. The industry is facing a crisis of trust, and we think one way of overcoming the crisis is by simply telling our own stories.

We must explain our value and demonstrate our credibility. We must take ownership over the misassumptions and misunderstandings in the public’s perception of journalists. It’s our job in the newsroom to fix that. If not us, who? If not now, when?

The Trusting News project, staffed by Joy Mayer and Lynn Walsh, is designed to demystify the issue of trust in journalism. We research how people decide what news is credible, then turn that knowledge into actionable strategies for journalists. We’re funded by the Reynolds Journalism Institute, the Knight Foundation and Democracy Fund.