Covering Breaking Unrest 101

**Disclaimer: This post addresses not the best practical methods to approach breaking unrest in the field but how to present the information you find to your audience. It should not be questioned at this point that how you come off to your audience does matter.

When breaking news happens, journalists easily get swept into a frenzy of “get quote. Throw it out into the world. Attract attention. Repeat.” It’s a somewhat automated version of journalism and to be fair, a watered down one. It lacks the intimate thought process that’s put into a story when you’re not on an “as-soon-as-technologically-possible” deadline.

There’s often little thought about how to come off as neutral or about investigating into the story deeper to present a holistic view. Instead, journalists go into panic mode. Mind you, “journalist panic mode” is not the average human’s panic mode. It involves running toward the scene of destruction, not away from it. It involves utilizing adrenaline to amp up journalistic powers of hunting down eye witnesses in small windows of time (and sometimes matter) instead of hunkering down to find safety. And of course, it involves thinking quickly.

Ah the dreaded “thinking quickly”. Too often, that process resolves to going along with the first usable idea/approach that pops into our heads and never looking back. Of course I’m not expecting things to change over night. It’s hard enough to change how your conscious mind works, let alone how your flight-or-fight mind does as well. But the first step to any process of change is accepting when you’re wrong.

You may not be wrong for using an official source in your story. You are, however, wrong for making that official source’s statement the whole story.

Your headline and Twitter caption DO matter.

Understanding your platform for sharing news is essential. It can, and it will attract or alienate audience members and given that your goal is not to generate interest in your site at the moment, but instead to inform readers, it would be best to stay away from controversial statements or opinions. At the very least, take a few minutes to frame them as such. If you can’t do that, it’s safer to stick with a teaser and go into depth in the actual article.

As much as we as journalists hate to think of readers skimming over our work and 1) only reading the headline to get an idea of the story and 2) pulling out only two or three of the choicest bits of information, we have to stop internalizing our readers’ disinterest, inability to focus at that time or desire to misconstrue what we wrote and be realistic. How we frame or situate a story matters. Sometimes readers won’t click on a link but they’ll retweet that sucker. So you better make sure that what you’re trying to convey in those 140 characters is exactly what you mean to say.

You all are writers. ACT LIKE IT.

I know you understand characterization. I know you understand protagonist vs. antagonist because those are basic writing elements. If you don’t understand the intersections of education with poverty and crime rates/psychology, I need you to understand that you probably shouldn’t be writing profiles on those involved in or identified as the root of the breaking unrest. It’s a harsh truth.

That’s not to say that you can’t even cover stories like such. But you need to understand what your job is and part of that means staying up to snuff so that when you contribute to the conversation, it’s in a meaningful and civic way that brings people closer together not that encourages them to take sides.

If you yourself have taken a side, or believe in taking sides, chances are your bias will show through and you should hand this project on to someone who can handle it in the way it deserves to be handled.

So I leave you with this.

In the age of breaking news, when anyone can lay out what happened at the climax of a story because that’s what attracts crowds, the best journalists lay out what happened leading up to it in a way that no one else has laid eyes on yet. Context matters folks.


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