Students from Sandy Hook Elementary School returned to school earlier this month after less than a month since Adam Lanza took the lives of 20 students and 7 adults in Newtown, Conn. Many people have asked why the media have covered the tragedy the way they have. In some cases the media has followed the debate over gun control, while other media have followed the intimate detail of what happened on that horrible day, including a real focus on the perpetrator – Adam Lanza. As I have learned over the past 15 years, the media covers what they believe is most relevant to their audience.
With a little help from a couple experts that I reached out to, I hope to help provide some perspective on why tragedies like this are covered in the way they are, though each may be covered differently.
The first story the media try to cover is perhaps too obvious, but the “Facts about the case,” is story number one according to Texas Christian University Associate Professor of Strategic Communication, Dr. Amiso George, APR, Fellow PRSA. In this case, one of the first things that were reported was the name of the suspect and a possible motive along with the number of people believed to be injured and killed. George says the public often want to know, “Why the perpetrator committed the crime, the motive for the crime, whether he was apprehended or not. If he is dead, how that happened. If not, from the time the culprit is arrested and brought to justice is of import to the public.”
While putting together the stories, whether broadcast, internet or print, the media consider the 5 Ws and H according to a retired Dallas / Fort Worth television news manager. The first objective is to tell the audience what has happened. She went on to say, no one person says during the daily news meetings, lets cover the killer, they ask what we know and what can we learn today, how does it relate to our local audience.
To help the local audience relate, George says the media, “Look for a similar local case for comparison.” In addition they will look to, “Interview local experts on gun control and related issues and access to mental health. Interviews with psychologists are also important as anxious parents would want to know how and when to talk to their children about the case; what teachers/school officials can do to make the classroom and school premises a safer place for students; what churches or synagogues (especially Sunday School classes) can do to minimize children’s anxiety about such danger.”
In the minutes after the incident and the ensuing hours and days, very specific information can be difficult to come by, so the first piece of information or the most relevant will make the headlines when the deadline is hit. As I read through news comment sections and other social media, I saw a lot of concern that the media was making a lot out of Lanza’s name and perhaps making him a hero to the next killer, but according to George, she believes that the preponderance of that coverage was from the tabloid press, which uses material to sensationalize the story and draw in a larger audience.
As the law enforcement starts to issue reports, heroes and heroines are discovered, but who will talk about their actions? Who will tell the story of those who lost their lives saving the children? Neighbors will be talked to? Friends, family and glory hounds will come forward and must be vetted before they can be quoted or put on air to tell their stories.
The media, by in large cover the incident without bias toward any one side, the simply try to tell a story with information that they have gathered. In some cases, the media have “only seen here” or “first reported here” when a resourceful reporter is able to break a new piece of information based on a quality interview or inquiry to a trusted source. In the end, the media are not trying to champion a cause or publicly convict a suspect. As you take in your news understand what you are reading or watching, is it tabloid – think TMZ, Access Hollywood or Extra; is it an opinion – think O’Reilly, Face the Nation or the editorial section of the newspaper; or is it a news program like the evening news or traditional newspaper.
This post first appeared on the Murnahan Public Relations Blog. Brian Murnahan, President of Murnahan Public Relations, brings more than 15 years of corporate communications experience in multiple different business sectors, including aviation, oil & gas, privacy, transportation and public policy. Murnahan specializes in media relations, crisis communications, public affairs, community / stakeholder relations, international outreach and media training.