Friday, April 4, 2014

Media speculates as tragedy unfolds

By: Cole Buergi, VP of  Business Development, Leonard & Finco Public Relations

My heart goes out to the victims and their families following the Fort Hood tragedy that happened on Wednesday afternoon. If you didn’t hear, a soldier with an allegedly self-prescribed brain injury shot and killed three people and wounded 16 others before taking his own life.

It was a bit surreal to listen on the radio while traveling as the media scrambled to report on the situation while it was still happening. Added to the weight of the situation was that the same base experienced a similar shooting in November 2009 that killed 13 and wounded 31.

With a heavy heart, I listened to the news and would change news stations often to see if another media outlet had more up-to-date news. While listening intently, I couldn’t help but evaluate the news coverage from a crisis PR perspective as the media rushed to be the first with new details or insight as to what was happening.

One media outlet was flying in a helicopter from a neighboring community in hopes of getting a bird’s eye view. Another had a reporter calling on his cell phone giving updates while traveling to Fort Hood by vehicle. While traveling, he gave a brief update on what he was able to ascertain had taken place. He also provided details on how it would be two hours of driving before he gets to the Fort and that he was busily making calls to contacts to learn more information while en route.

A little while later, another reporter on the same news station was able to get an interview from a local police officer who was helping to secure the Fort’s perimeter. The officer provided some new details including the number of people, three, which he knew were injured. He also said there were reports that there may be more than one suspect.

Still other media stations interviewed retired military officers to discuss base security and one news host even interviewed a soldier who that was wounded in the 2009 shooting.

One thing that was a common theme among the news organizations is that they all were speculating as to what was happening, why it was happening and who might be involved. Many even speculated that it was an act of terrorism.

While listening, I found myself assessing as to how best to handle a PR crisis of this magnitude and how could it be handled differently. More specifically, how I would handle things considering the media was converging and reporting on an ongoing and, still very dangerous, situation.

I also found myself criticizing the media for their wildly speculative nature in reporting the events and, in my view, hampering military and local law enforcement from focusing on their main duties. Although the true facts are being revealed about what happened and the possible reasons why, many listeners tuning into the first few hours of reporting may never hear why it really happened and fall into the trap of repeating the speculation that they heard.

Overall, I commend the military and local law enforcement teams for the efforts in a very difficult situation. I do not offer the same praise to the media on this topic. Their rush to be first meant putting aside journalistic integrity to report accurately and responsibly.

Did you watch or listen to the coverage? What did you think about the media’s reporting?

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