Religion Unplugged

Seven tips for covering horrific events at houses of worship — and treating victims right

Editor’s note: Every Friday, “Weekend Plug-In” features analysis, insights and top headlines from the world of faith. Got feedback or ideas for this column? Email Bobby Ross Jr. at therossnews@gmail.com.

(OPINION) I love journalism. I love my fellow journalists. But as I pointed out in last week’s column on the media barrage faced by minister Britt Farmer after a deadly shooting at his Texas church, I believe we can do better — much better — in how we treat victims.

To help in that regard, I asked four highly respected news professionals — three of them Pulitzer Prize recipients — for advice. Everyone I’m quoting has extensive experience in this area and in making our profession proud.

Based on what they told me, here are seven tips for covering horrific events at houses of worship:

1. How you approach a victim is everything.

“Many mistakes are usually made in the initial approach when journalists are trying to get that quote or sound bite,” said Joe Hight, a Pulitzer-winning editor who is the Edith Kinney Gaylord Endowed Chair of Journalism Ethics at the University of Central Oklahoma. 

“It just doesn’t work like you’re at a public news conference or interviewing a public figure,” added Hight, who hired me at The Oklahoman in 1993 and oversaw our coverage of victims after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. “You are intruding upon private individuals in their most vulnerable moments. In these tragic situations, you have to ask the victims or family members for permission. You need to say, ‘I’m sorry for your loss,’ and mean it sincerely. You need to put yourself in the victim’s position of grief and despair after such a tragic situation.”

Read the full column.

This column appears in the online magazine Religion Unplugged.

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