Tip Sheet: How to Cover a Campus Crisis

    by Amy Schmitz Weiss
    November 17, 2014
    Photo by Matthew Rogers and used here with Creative Commons license.

    When disaster or crisis strikes a community, everyone is affected in some way. When the surrounding area faces crisis, so does a campus community. And in some cases, college campuses may be the place where a crisis originates — such as a campus shooting. Knowing how to report on such charged and complex situations requires tact, sensitivity and sound ethical judgment.

    Often we may not think of the campus newspaper as being on the front lines, but it can be the vehicle through which students, faculty and the surrounding community learn about a news event. In some cases, student journalists may be first responders to the scene.

    Often, we may not think of the campus newspaper as being on the front lines, but it can be the vehicle through which students, faculty and the surrounding community learn about the news event.

    So how can student journalists and college newspaper advisers make the best judgment calls during such events? As journalism educators, how should we teach our students to handle terribly difficult situations should they occur on their campus?

    Photo by S. Army Europe Images and used here with Creative Commons license.

    Photo by S. Army Europe Images and used here with Creative Commons license.

    The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, a project of Columbia Journalism School, produced a compendium of resources to help college newspaper editors and advisers, journalism educators and student journalists approach crises and disasters. I had the opportunity to collaborate with the Dart Center on 10 tipsheets and these highlights:

    Covering Campus Rape and Sexual Assault

    When covering a rape on campus or any type of sexual assault, student journalists must approach the incident with caution and bring sensitivity and tact to their interactions. Survivors, and those connected to the survivor, should be approached thoughtfully and carefully since they may have endured trauma and significant distress.


    Clery Act. Student journalists should be familiar with the Clery Act and rights to information about incidents of sexual violence that happen on college campuses. One useful summary of the Clery Act:

    “The federal Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act (Clery Act), 20 USC § 1092(f), requires colleges and universities, both public and private, participating in federal student aid programs to disclose campus safety information, and imposes certain basic requirements for handling incidents of sexual violence and emergency situations. Disclosures about crime statistics and summaries of security policies are made once a year in an Annual Security Report (ASR), and information about specific crimes and emergencies is made publicly available on an ongoing basis throughout the year.”

    Be careful who is identified in the story. Remember it is never OK to share information that can reveal the location or identity of a survivor unless authorized by the survivor.

    Be careful when approaching sources – be transparent, calm and soft-spoken. Identify who you are, what organization you represent, what will happen with the information you collect from the interview, how it might be used in the story and when it will appear in publication. Disclose why you want to talk with people. If they are open to an interview, then proceed. If not, leave your contact information and ask them to contact you if they would like to talk. If they are not interested in talking, or willing to speak on the record, find a different source.

    Download the Full Tip Sheet here.

    Covering Homicide

    Reporting on homicide is difficult no matter what stage you are at in your journalistic career. A homicide may result from a mass shooting, a murder, intimate partner violence or accidents. Family, friends and colleagues of victims of homicide will be in a fragile state, so it’s important to handle the news gathering process professionally and sensitively. Covering homicide also requires significant knowledge of the case at hand and of crime and legal terms.

    Have a plan or protocol. College newspaper editors and advisers should have a protocol or plan in place for mobilizing staff in the event that a homicide occurs on campus. If you don’t have a plan in place now, create one. Identify how your staff will gather information, what should be covered and how to encourage self-care practices and coping mechanisms throughout the process.

    Remember this is about a person. When covering a homicide, remember the event is not simply a crime statistic; it’s about a human being – someone who was a friend, a daughter or son, a parent, or a colleague to someone. It’s important to tell the story from a human perspective.

    Watch what you write. Sources may have biased views on a situation or person. Be careful not to perpetuate biases or replicate biased tones into your story. Instead, supplant the information from your source with context about the bigger picture.

    Photo by Wolfram Burner and used here with Creative Commons license.

    Photo by Wolfram Burner and used here with Creative Commons license.

    Download the Full Tip Sheet here.

    Visual Journalism Tactics

    An image is worth a thousand words, or so the saying goes. When you are covering a traumatic event, the images or videos you take are historical documents that capture a moment in time, but also offer an eye into a trauma that has affected an individual and community. Consider the following tips:

    Create a code of ethics for visuals. Create a code of ethics on how to film or photograph traumatic events for your newsroom. This could help you and your staff in future situations. Helpful insights on video and photo ethics can be found through two professional journalism organizations:

    Integrity of the visual. When at the scene, do not stage video or photographs. Do not ask people to pose or rearrange items or subjects at the scene. You are there to document a moment in time or events as they unfold. The integrity of the video or photo must remain intact.

    Download the Full Tip Sheet here.

    Social Media Practices During a Traumatic Event

    As a student journalist or college newspaper adviser or editor, it’s important to know basic practices for using social media for newsgathering and reporting on traumatic events. The following tips offer a few important ways to use social media responsibly and ethically when covering a traumatic event.

    Curate source lists on Facebook and Twitter ahead of time. You should have local, state and regional sources in your digital toolbox that relate to natural disaster, crisis or traumatic events. Compiling these lists in advance will save you valuable time when a traumatic event occurs. They will allow you to quickly access sources and information when you need it most.

    Corroborate image information. Images can be made up, recreated from the past or manipulated, and then posted on social media during a traumatic event. Corroborate images with other sources to make sure they are legitimate. You can Google the image or use the following websites that help identify manipulations or fakes: FotoForensics or Regex.

    Download the Full Tip Sheet here.

    Digital Resources for Covering Traumatic Events

    During traumatic events, people may be separated, and you can be a resource to them by helping them locate one another. Google Person Finder provides a mechanism for people to report those who may be missing or need to connect with loved ones or friends.

    Mobile apps can be helpful in times of crisis and disaster. Don’t wait for a crisis or disaster to hit. Download these apps ahead of time so that you are prepared. Here are a few that might be helpful depending on the situation:

    Don’t forget mental health and wellness online sources. Identify sources for mental health and wellness ahead of time that are local, state and regional in scope. When a traumatic event occurs, people may be looking for help or exhibiting forms of traumatic stress or PTSD. They may be seeking hotlines to call for help, agencies that can provide preventative or intervention services depending on the situation.

    Download the Full Tip Sheet here.

    Student Self-Care Practices

    As a student journalist, it’s important to practice self-care strategies as you cover traumatic events. Just as your sources may experience trauma, you may too as a journalist.

    Set up a newsroom training. Ask your adviser or editor to schedule a time for the newsroom to learn about trauma, stress, PTSD, and the effects of covering traumatic news events. By educating yourself, you will be better prepared to report on a traumatic event occurs and practice self-care strategies that will help you produce better work, and take care of yourself personally.

    Take care of yourself. Knowing how to take care of yourself physically and mentally is important both during chaotic events and on a regular, daily basis. The more you practice self-care techniques, the easier it will be to deal with a traumatic event and related stressors.
    Here are some practices you can implement right away:

    • Eat regular meals. Improper nutrition can affect your ability to work effectively.
    • Get a full night’s rest. Lack of sleep can hinder your ability to concentrate and make the right decisions.
    • Try deep breathing. The practice of breathing can help calm and ease any tension you may have or experience.
    • Exercise (run, walk, yoga, etc. – whatever exercise you enjoy doing). This can help to relieve stress you may be experiencing.

    Download the Full Tip Sheet here.

    This article features information compiled from a compendium of resources from the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. Content featured has been republished with permission from the Dart Center.

    Amy Schmitz Weiss is an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Media Studies at San Diego State University. Schmitz Weiss is a 2011 Dart Academic Fellow and has a Ph.D. in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin. She teaches journalism courses in basic writing and editing, multimedia, web design, data journalism and mobile journalism. She is also the 2011-2012 Recipient of the AEJMC Bridge Grant with funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation that led to the creation of a mobile news app, AzteCast, for San Diego State University. Schmitz Weiss is a former journalist who has worked in business development, marketing analysis and account management for several Chicago Internet media firms. Her research interests include online journalism, media sociology, news production, multimedia journalism and international communication. See her website for a full list of research publications. Contact her at [email protected].

    Tagged: amy schmitz campus crisis dart center ethics planning

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