“Remember whose story it is.” Dart Center’s Bruce Shapiro on mass shootings, trauma and ethical reporting

Dart Center Executive Director Bruce Shapiro (center) discusses covering conflict zones in 2013. Credit: Dart Center

On October 1, 2015, I was in a reporting class at the University of Oregon when another student, scrolling through Twitter, called out to the rest of the class: “There was a school shooting at Umpqua Community College.”

President Obama delivers a statement on the shooting at a community college in Roseburg, Oregon. October 1, 2015.

Former journalism students Ian Campbell and Troy Brynelson were on the scene covering the shooting for the Roseburg newspaper, The News-Review, and we spent the rest of the class keeping up with the news from their Twitter accounts.

Some of my peers drove down to Roseburg to work as stringers for national media outlets.

Later that term, Brynelson came to speak in with my reporting class about that day and those that followed, days that blurred together from constant work and lack of sleep. Both Brynelson and Campbell talked about their experience in the School of Journalism’s project Reporting Roseburg, produced by faculty members Nicole Dahmen and Lori Shontz.

On the day of the shooting, The Dart Center For Journalism & Trauma posted a list of resources for journalists who were covering the event in Oregon. The Dart Center, part of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, provides trainings, resources and support for newsrooms and individuals reporting on violence and tragedy around the world.

While in New York City, my peers and I got to meet with the center’s executive director, Bruce Shapiro. As he told us about his work with the center, the UCC shooting and the reporters I knew were on my mind.

To name or not to name?

During the talk, Shapiro acknowledged that the campaign urging journalists to not name the shooter is a “big, hairy, divisive issue.”

In traditional coverage of mass shootings like the one at UCC, Shapiro said that journalists have taken their cue from the justice system, which primarily focuses on the defendant. So, he said, many reporters have done the same, filling column inches with details of the shooter’s past, possible motives, and recollections from coworkers and neighbors.

“(We are) fascinated by bad guys,” Shapiro said. “The fantasy of absolute evil is fascinating.”

Reporters should use the shooter’s name, though only when necessary and in a purposeful way. However, he said it is vital that the reporting of an act of mass violence not be taken over by sensational coverage of the bad guy.

“Remember whose story it is,” he said. “Who are the people most affected?”

In an article co-authored by Shapiro and psychiatrist Frank Ochberg in 2011, they warn journalist of the potential for “copycats” that will be inspired by their reporting on mass shootings.

Reporters can lessen the possibility of copycats by not using words or photos that would romanticize the shooter and his or her actions, they wrote. Similarly, they said that reporters must be careful with how much attention they give the shooter’s manifestos.

“The Unabomber famously extorted public space from the New York Times and Washington Post,” they wrote. “Today, killers self-publish on the Internet. Whether and how to excerpt, publish, or post manifestos and videos raises significant ethical questions which it is important to consider case-by-case.”

Give control back to the victims

Shapiro told us that in covering mass tragedy, focus on the victims and survivors. When interviewing them, it is vital to be understanding and empathetic to these people who have “lost all control.”

There are subtle ways to do so, such as asking permission to talk about certain subjects or being more transparent about your reporting than you usually would.

“Don’t ask, ‘How do you feel?’” Shapiro said.
“Ask, ‘What happened to you?’”

This question eliminates any possible blame or judgement the victim might feel and allows he or she to simple narrate what happened. Shapiro said these kinds of questions allow the victim to have more control over the interview, which can help the victim open up to the reporter.

“Give a little agency and control back to them,” Shapiro said. These tips can help reporters build a human connection with their sources.

Shapiro moderates a conversation on gun violence in 2015. Credit: Dart Center

Shapiro also noted that journalists also risk being affected by the traumatic events that they report upon. The Dart Center provides resources and tip sheets for reporters who may be subject to what Shapiro and others call “vicarious trauma” in their work.

“There is still a lot of stigma about showing any vulnerability,” Shapiro said. But journalists who are experiencing vicarious trauma may make reporting or ethical mistakes if they don’t acknowledge that they’re struggling and seek support.

The Dart Center advises reporters who might be experiencing vicarious trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder to pace themselves, to avoid isolation when working on a story alone and seek peer support, and to know their limits.

“There’s no bandaid for that kind of environment,” Shapiro said. “But there is a lot that can be done with peer support and getting the conversation going.”

Additional reading

Francesca Fontana is a journalist based in Eugene, Ore. Follow Francesca Fontana on Twitter: @francescamarief.