“If Tragedy Strikes” Workshop

What should we Tweet? What can we tell the public? Should we release the shooter’s name? Has the victim’s family been notified? Where’s the press conference? Is the shooter dead? Are students safe? Should we show photos of a dead body? What resources are there to protect our journalists’ emotional and mental state?

These are all questions that rang around the room as 20 journalism and public relations students, along with some of The Daily staff, grappled with a realistic simulation of a campus shooting. The students were split up into groups of editors, visual journalists, reporters, and crisis communicators and each sector had their own qualified mentor. The groups were given a piece of paper containing different facts at each of the three phases. Some phases included updates that intensified the decision making.

Seattle police reporter for The Seattle Times Sara Jean Green assisted the reporter group. Green was part of the team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for Breaking News Reporting during the 2009 Lakewood shooting that left four police officers dead.

Assistant Metro Editor for crime and justice at The Times John de Leon helped the editors, including editor-in-chief of The Daily Sarah Schweppe.

“It was great to get advice from professional journalists on how to handle sensitive situations,” Schweppe said. “I also enjoyed the discussion of the importance of getting the most accurate information out to the public, even if it means being a few minutes later than other outlets. Making ethical decisions on a time crunch can be difficult, and I think the exercise helped us work through what that’s like.”

Schweppe related the simulation to decisions made last year at The Daily during the Cafe Racer incident. She said it was interesting to look back at how they handled it well and what they could have done better.

The crisis communicator group was joined by associate vice president of media relations and communications at the UW Norm Arkans, and by Commander Steve Rittereiser of the UW Police Department. The group had to prepare a press conference at the end and answer questions from the reporters. Rittereiser was able to provide valuable insight about how many officers would likely be at the scene and what areas would probably be taped off.

Alumna Kellie Cheadle (B.A., 1996), multiplatform content manager at KING-TV, worked with the visual journalists and was able to give recent advice from the Federal Way shooting.

“Covering breaking news is not for the faint of heart,” she said. “It requires quick thinking and solid judgment. I was very impressed by the students who participated. They asked great questions and knew how to use social media to gather and disseminate information.”

In the new world of journalism, updates are made by the second. Cheadle said the one question everyone should always ask in breaking news situations is ‘how do we know that?’

Former editor of The Times Mike Fancher did a debriefing at the end of the training on ethical issues. Emeritus professor Roger Simpson, who taught journalism ethics here for many years, was also present to offer advice.

A special thanks goes out to Diana Kramer, who planned and ran the workshop, and Professor Randy Beam, who helped with planning.