Is Your Newsroom Prepared to Cover a Terrorist Attack?

By Sandy K. Johnson

When terrorists attack, the first responders include journalists who rush to the scene.

In a NPF webinar, three journalists who covered recent terror attacks offered tips and suggestions based on their experiences.

And the first is the simplest: Get someone to the scene quickly.

“Get to the area so you’re inside the zone, not outside the zone” when police seal it off, said Annie Linskey, a national reporter for the Boston Globe who worked for Bloomberg at the time of the bomb attacks on the Boston Marathon.

She literally ran from the newsroom to the marathon finish line, and with her smartphone captured audio, video, photos and notes that she relayed to her editors. She also took down cell phone numbers of the people she talked to so she could follow up later, and she took photos of shops and other markers to help her remember locations.

In the midst of an attack, editors back in the newsroom need to begin assembling content and directing coverage. Scott Kraft, deputy managing editor of the Los Angeles Times – which won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the San Bernardino attacks – suggested setting up a hub where top editors can consult and share information from reporters.

boston-bombing-pressCarrie Budoff Brown, editor of POLITICO Europe, said her Brussels-based newsroom set up a Slack channel immediately and used it to communicate and file stories, photos and video. She said Slack worked even when the phones went down.

In addition to law enforcement, Brown said that prosecutors, mayors and cabinet ministers were good sources for reliable information. Twitter and RSS feeds contributed a steady flow of information, which still had to be verified independently. She noted that most government agencies, from law enforcement to homeland security, now have official Twitter channels to disseminate credible information.

Linskey said some of the biggest scoops can come via social media. You can use it to learn about the victims as well as the suspects. “Treat social media as a tip. Save anything interesting as a screen shot,” before accounts are deleted or taken down, she said.

Above all, strive for accuracy, which Kraft called “the eternal struggle over being first and being right.”

Kraft emphasized the importance of assembling a team to look at bigger questions and issues even as first details become evident. “While you’re on a sprint, you have to remember to set in motion some long-distance enterprise,” he said.

Must-have list of items for covering a terrorist attack: Smartphone, cell phone charger, pen, pad, wallet and comfortable shoes.

Above all, stay safe and trust your instincts. “No story is worth getting hurt for,” Kraft said.  

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