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How the media can cover mass shootings while respecting space for grief

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Journalists from NPR and many other news outlets rushed to Uvalde this week as soon as word of the mass shooting got out, just as they had rushed earlier this month to the shooting massacre in Buffalo. With every one of these, the media is trying to find out what happened, what went wrong and who should bear responsibility without doing more harm to a community in mourning. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik is with us to talk about this. Hi, David.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Hey, Sacha.

PFEIFFER: Because of the jobs that you and I do, we know that the human instinct is to give victims and their families space. The journalistic instinct, maybe the journalistic requirement, is to get their stories and get answers. How do you think we should be balancing these competing drives?

FOLKENFLIK: Look. This - a story like this is always hard as a journalist, for you and me. Look. It's hard as a parent. I got three kids. You have to show respect and approach this with humanity, compassion. Somebody doesn't want to tell their story? Respect it. If somebody does want to tell their story, maybe make sure it's a considered decision. Fundamentally, our job is to hold people accountable - people in positions of power - even when it's uncomfortable like this. You can't back down from asking tough questions, telling tough stories. But maybe you also have to think hard about how you do it.

PFEIFFER: These shootings keep repeating themselves. But from your perspective, is the way journalists cover them changing at all?

FOLKENFLIK: I think it's evolved over time. We've seen news organizations shy away from emphasizing the identity, the background, the motivation of killers, avoiding publishing or extensively quoting or linking to elevating the importance of so-called manifestos, even though we've seen some allusions to one in this case. If you think back to Columbine, Aurora, the Boston Marathon bomber, a lot of attention was given to their look, their sensibility. I think you see a lot less of that now. And we now know that glorifying killers can often inspire imitators.

But there are other debates, too. There's a robust debate right now playing out in newsrooms and on Twitter. Should journalists show more graphic footage, show more images as a way of making the issue impossible for the public to turn away from, impossible for public officials to avoid?

There's also the question of the community involved, in this case a town on the Texas border. A lot of families are Spanish speakers. And yet we're seeing officials answer questions almost exclusively, it seems, in English, as though they're talking to their bosses in Austin and Washington. Reporters from Telemundo and Univision have been very important in getting out interviews with relatives and parents on the scene. I think that's something to look to as well.

PFEIFFER: Sure. And in Uvalde, we've seen reporters pretty insistent with public officials, as they should be.

FOLKENFLIK: Yeah. I mean, look; they were told by law enforcement, wait for it, be patient, you'll get answers. But did law enforcement take the right answers? It's pretty clear local law enforcement didn't. Do we have the right policies in place for our communities, for our nation? Well, that's been posed by reporters.

Let's listen to this exchange between Mark Stone of Sky News and Texas Senator Ted Cruz. He's a Republican who's been a strong supporter of gun ownership rights.

(SOUNBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK STONE: Is this the moment to reform gun laws?

TED CRUZ: You know, it's easy to go to politics.

STONE: But it's important. It's at the heart of the issue.

CRUZ: I get that that's where the media likes to go.

STONE: No, it's not. It's where many of the people we've talked to here like to go.

FOLKENFLIK: You've heard a number of people who are strong supporter of gun rights say, well, this is politicizing it to talk about gun policies right now. But to not talk about it is also a choice, as it is when you look at mental health issues. Asking questions is what we do. And yet there's always a danger of being pigeonholed, as being on one side or the other, when you do so.

PFEIFFER: What do you think are the effects on the community of the kind of coverage we've been talking about?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, to me, the real problem is that you have this intense crush of coverage after a tragedy, a massacre like this, and then kind of the abandonment of it after some days, other than, say, anniversaries or when the next episode erupts. It's too much, and it's not enough. I think it's traumatic for those who go through it and for the victims of past episodes. I think it's traumatic for people absorbing it, like you and me, just the regular public. But that kind of waxing and waning lets public officials off the hook. There's no pressure for them to act or to think about the consequences of their decision once the press pack dwindles once more.

PFEIFFER: That's NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. David, thank you.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

(SOUNDBITE OF RIOPY'S "MEDITATION 22") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.