Only a few days before the anniversary of the Oct. 1, 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas, multiple journalists came together to discuss how to cover those shootings, and the aftermath of reporting on tragic events.
The Society of Professional Journalists panel “Preparing to Cover a Mass Shooting” was held Friday, Sept. 29 at the Planet Hollywood Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Moderated by former SPJ President Rebecca Aguilar, the panel included Las Vegas Review-Journal data and watchdog editor Michael Scott Davidson, Clark County spokeswoman and former news producer Yazmin Beltran, University of Connecticut journalism professor Amanda Crawford and Los Angeles Spectrum News 1 reporter Kate Cagle.
In 2017, Davidson covered the Las Vegas shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival, which killed 61 civilians, but each panelist has covered mass shootings, including the Uvalde shooting at Robb Elementary School, the 2012 Aurora, Colorado shooting and the 2011 Tucson shooting.
At the beginning of the panel, Cagle called attention to the anniversary of the Oct. 1 shooting. Describing it as one of the deadliest shootings, Cagle said it changed how most news outlets cover mass shootings and introduced a new fear for concert audiences due to its large scale.
“It was the first mass shooting that later, I had colleagues who had been at the music festival that night, and all of a sudden we had people in our newsroom who had been traumatized and who had lived through a mass shooting,” Cagle said. “So that was a huge game changer for us, too. And the conversations that we’re having even while it’s happening because sometimes you can be very straightforward and forget that we are all living through these experiences as well.”
According to the Gun Violence Archive, there have been 520 mass shootings – or shootings involving four or more people shot or killed, excluding the shooter – in the U.S. since the start of 2023.
Multiple times throughout the session, Aguilar reminded attendees that they might have to cover a shooting at some point, and making sure newsrooms have a plan in place for covering the shooting is critical.
Some of the priorities outlined by panelists included figuring out who is going out into the field, the information and official sources the newsroom has available and who will be in charge of figuring out who was killed and injured.
“We have people on this panel that have covered multiple (shootings),” Davidson said. “I’m sure there’s people in the audience that have covered multiple. That is something that we need to be prepared for … If you live in Florida,, you have a hurricane coverage preparedness plan. I think every newsroom should have, unfortunately, a mass shooting preparedness coverage plan.”
Being quickly prepared to act and report on a mass shooting might be the first step. But, assuring reporters are safe, are able to take breaks and have the option to say when the situation is too much should be considered during and after a shooting, Beltran said. Only days after she became a producer for her former job at Univision Nevada in 2017, Stephen Paddock opened fire from his 32nd-floor suite at the Mandalay Bay Hotel.
Beltran was there for her reporters as a news producer, but even her mental health was impacted.
“The aftermath doesn’t always come weeks later. It can come immediately every night you go home,” Beltran said. “For me, it was driving leaving the station and driving by Mandalay Bay and looking at that window. That took a huge toll on me. So, I think management needs to be aware that it’s going to have a huge impact right after it happens.”
Newsrooms can make plans to cover shootings. However, being mentally prepared may not be as easy. Before the session ended, the panelists informed listeners that if they ever felt unsafe or not mentally stable enough to cover a shooting, it’s ok to say no and help in other ways besides going to the scene of action.
“Communicate with your editors what you are and aren’t comfortable doing,” Davidson said. “Make sure that they know what they need to in the aftermath because there are going to be people that are just covering it that are dealing with trauma, different levels for different people. So they need to have a plan in place about do we need to bring therapists into the newsroom or get therapy resources to reporters.”
While newsrooms should be caring for their reporters, the panelists also pointed out how crucial it is to consider the families or victims of mass shootings. Any potential plan should also include how to interview and approach anyone affected by a mass shooting.
Crawford also emphasized the need to minimize harm. This can be done by limiting the shooter’s name in coverage, respecting families or victims’ time to grieve, having situational awareness and never making assumptions.
“I think that a lot of newsrooms are talking about plans with good sources and plenty to cover but not thinking about the ethical issues,” Crawford said. “How are we going to approach families and trauma? Are we going to add to their trauma if there’s a line of dozens of people waiting to talk to the one family who’s talking to the press? Should you jump in that line? We as an industry need to be better.”