Terror Attack News Coverage Should Learn From Crisis PR

“Get the widow on the set!
We need dirty laundry.”

Don Henley’s “Dirty Laundry,” which offered biting criticism of broadcast news, along with some nice guitar solos, is now 41 years-old.

The lyrics came to mind this week as 10 million of us in Michigan experienced an act of terrorism even though that isn’t how it’s being characterized. What happened at Michigan State University on February 13th has impacted the souls and psyches of so many in all corners of this state, this mirrors incidents widely labeled terrorist attacks in other communities.

This one hits close to home, quite literally. We are lucky. Our daughter, a junior at MSU, gets the best possible outcome from her relative proximity to the violence, spending the rest of her life as a survivor. And in the days after the shooting, I had an opportunity to counsel individuals close to the family of one of the victims, frustrated by what felt like a relentless effort by dozens of journalists.

I thought of one of my first days in broadcast news – 32 years ago as a new intern at a local TV station. News broke that a student collapsed and died on the track of a high school. It turned out it was the high school where I had graduated just a year before. The school district, in the immediate hours after the death, could not immediately provide a photo of the boy, but I was able to quickly connect a station photojournalist with a relative who happened to have a current yearbook in her car. The station was the first on the air with a photo of the student and I was, for a moment anyway, a hero among assignment editors, producers and managers.

I didn’t think anything of it at the time. That was just the way it worked. But over the course of that summer and my formative years in broadcast news, I paid attention to the way veteran pros talked to family members and other survivors of newsworthy death and violence. My takeaway, which I still believe, is that the vast majority of them handle these situations with care and professionalism and consider it to be perhaps the worst aspect of a difficult job.

This week, I explained that there’s no obligation, unlike for businesses with customers or public officials, for those experiencing grief to talk to media. It’s completely up to them. But remarkably, enough of them do in these now-routine situations that it sets the expectation, unfairly or otherwise, that others will too. So that opens the door for requests and request they do. From the sound of things, the producers (bookers) for national TV news shows out of New York were the most persistent, if not relentless. Yes, these incidents have become commonplace. But asking a grieving family should take a different mindset and disposition than any other kind of guest request.

We’ve heard similar stories from campus where national news outlets were more intrusive than their local counterparts, all of which filled the campus with large numbers. This has prompted the university to take the unusual and perhaps unprecedented step of handing out printed cards to interested students (pictured) to dissuade journalists from approaching them. This may be going overboard. As I’ve recommended to clients before in other situations, a polite “no thank you” is typically all that needs to be said. And deferring journalists to the university’s communications department doesn’t help. But it’s a symbolic reminder that respect should come first.

Monday night, watching as a viewer who needed information, not as an analyst or news geek, I wasĀ  well-informed. Using “backpack” technology, crews from Detroit TV stations covered the situation on campus with smarts, empathy and accuracy. But just like those of us who have to talk to business people on the worst days of their careers, journalists, especially those for whom the pushy East Coast attitude serves well when trying to get celebrities and politicians on the air, need to be mindful when they’re talking to someone on the worst day of their life who never asked to be in this position.

Just like lawmakers should use the MSU terrorist attack to guide policy, newsroom leaders should also point to it as an example.