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Media Tactics

 

By Victoria Deaton

E-mail: bohican@mindspring.com

 

Here goes...off the cuff...my basic rule on how to deal with reporters (mostly TV) when they show up at the shooting scene, and later on at your door and at the courthouse. I'll try and post a more concise version later. Grab a cup of coffee. It's a very long post but subtle nuances are important here. I'm not supporting or damning the media, just giving y'all a feel for what usually happens. If you have a shooting buddy, and you feel pretty comfortable with what I'm outlining, discuss a media plan with him and your attorney in case a shooting occurs to give you some level of preparedness. You may need your buddy as a designated family spokesman. Don't identify him as a shooting sports partner...just a "friend of the family".

 

I'll assume the shooting happened in a public place, making it a bit more high-profile, like in a road-rage situation where good guy and bad guy aren't immediately evident, unlike a situation where some guy broke into your house at night. The following thoughts are based on heavy media coverage in a town that has a big newspaper, several TV stations, and a neighboring town that has the same. You might get lucky and just get a reporter or two. Unless your local law enforcement agency's jurisdiction has 800MHz systems you can expect the media to show up shortly after the law enforcement officers are dispatched to the shooting scene. 800Mhz systems can cut down on what the media pick up on the scanner, but some law enforcement agency's are providing the media with 800 MHz receive-only radios upon request. In short, you may have to deal with reporters and cameras during one of the most stressful moments of your life. Stay cool, and take care of business.

 

At the scene, don't duck the cameras. It makes you look guilty. Never, EVER put your hand over or on the lens of a camera, or get in a shoving match with a photographer. It makes you look guilty and evasive, and the photographer in most jurisdictions can and will press charges. Most of all, it makes you look physically aggressive — not a good thing at this time. If you are in a patrol car, don't duck down; don't cover your head. If the officer can give you a copy of a report or even a piece of useless paper to look at, it's even better to look occupied. If not, a simple nod to a camera is okay. Do NOT talk to reporters or answer questions yelled at you. They will be set up in a line along the crime scene tape and a camera will always be on you. Reporters will be talking to the designated law enforcement officer spokesperson. There might be choppers overhead. Live vans and sat trucks will set up on sidewalks. The circus has come to town.

 

At some point you may have to walk into your local courthouse/police department. Expect cameras during this "walkdown". Again, don't duck. If you're cuffed in front, ask the law enforcement officer if you can fold a shirt or jacket over the cuffs. Photographers will be walking alongside, ahead, and behind you and scurrying pretty quickly. This is a function of having to have walkdown shots that are 30 seconds long plus having shots to edit, so they're gonna be moving pretty quickly and jockeying for position. Don't misinterpret this as aggression. Again, a nod is fine. Do NOT say anything more than "It's best I don't talk to you guys yet." if anything at all. Always use conversational language whenever possible. Walk tall. Don't slouch. Don't appear cocky. Just walk normally. You can do anything for 3 minutes and that's all the media wants at that point: pictures and maybe some sound (TV slang for "interview") with one of the folks involved in the shooting. Pray for a tornado, hurricane, landslide, meteorite...anything to divert crews (manpower) to other stories. <g>

 

If you have an attorney at this point, coordinate a statement of some sort and contact your family to make sure they get the same message. The media will descend upon your house to get a shot of where you live and will probably knock on the door. If it was up to me, and if it's a high profile shooting, I'd put my family in a hotel room for a few days. Expect live trucks on the street. Expect your neighbors to be asked questions. The line your family is to use is "hi, guys...sorry, we just can't talk right now" if they are getting in the car to come down to the PD. Conversational english. Non-adversarial.

 

Reporters have deadlines. TV reporters have to have pictures and an interview for that deadline. TV folks will need something for 12 noon, 5pm, 530pm, 6pm, and 11pm, and the stuff will get regurgitated for the early am show at 6am or whatever; they call this "feeding the monster"--a huge demand for fresh pictures and interviews. They are not interviewing you because they want to or want to "nail" you. They are there because of managers who are competing to be #1 with the story, and that crew is the one that got dispatched. Don't take it personally. Depending on whether the shooting was a big deal they will do liveshots, and photographers will be looking for pictures. Did you use a pistol or an AR-15? Expect to see a shot on the news of a law enforcement officer handling it, and boy does that AR look big as hell. Simple COM (center of mass) shots from a Glock 19? Pictures of the brass on the street. A 12ga. fired at near point-blank range leaving a mess on the bad guy's car? Depending on the video standards (rules of what gore can be used on-air) at a station, that mess from the shotgun may show up. Shootings are ugly. The pictures won't be of you fighting for your life so that you can go home to your family, but of the aftermath. I think about these things because I've seen them for the past 12+ years and unfortunately the expected post-shooting media exposure affects my shoot/no-shoot decisions.

 

You can't control the pictures at the scene but at least you can control the soundbites from your "team" that go on TV and the quotes in the paper. Have your attorney work with someone you designate as a family representative, like your shooting buddy (who may better understand a defensive shooting situation than your non-shooting neighbor Barney does). First, get control of your personal situation: handle the Law enforcement officers, get your attorney on the horn, and call your family. Then use the attorney and your designated family spokesman to provide the media with a statement if they are on the story big time, even if the statement doesn't amount to much. Once it's approved by the attorney, have your friend Joe Soundbite go to the house, if that's where the media are camped out. If at all possible, give them a statement away from the house to draw them away from your family and neighbors. (If you ever once carted a shotgun out to your car on the way to the gunsmith and a clueless neighbor saw it, you can expect a soundbite on TV to the effect of "yeah, he was always playing with guns" or something stupid like that.)

 

Spokesman: "Hi, I'm Joe Soundbite, and since Fred Defendant is over at the police department helping out with the report, he's designated me to give you guys a brief statement. Before we get going, I'd like to ask for your help. First, we'd appreciate it if you folks will respect his family and give them some room. No one here in the house is going to make a statement. Second, any questions about the situation will need to be directed towards Todd Louis Green, his attorney, who will give you folks more info since he's working closely with the PD and with Fred. This okay? Good. Now I'm going to make a statement. You guys ready?(they'll all nod since they've been rolling tape all this time---it just makes you look as cooperative as possible) I can't answer any questions, but Fred is uninjured (or is being treated or whatever). He told the police that he'd cooperate in any way necessary. The situation happened while he was on his way to work/lunch/whatever. It's a stressful time for everyone involved, and we're cooperating fully with the authorities."

 

Two things have happened. You've gotten the message out that you don't want the media hounding you (more on that later) and you've given them a miniscule soundbite ("it happened on the way to work...he's cooperating") which is something benign but usable. Make sure your buddy sticks to the script. Keep the tone conversational, like you're telling your employees about a new policy. Firm, but conversational.

 

After the statement, the media will attempt to get more information. Joe Soundbite, your friend/spokesman, is to smile, shake his head, and say, "Geez guys, I can't give you any more than that since everyone is so busy and I don't have much info. But if you guys will help out and not hassle the family, we'll help out by giving you guys what you need in time to meet deadlines. Have you talked to the cops? They've been very helpful to us. Perhaps they can give you more than I can." He's identified Law enforcement officers as being "helpful" to you (that's subtle), and then ended the impromptu press conference.

 

This sort of deal making usually works when you've got a shooter who has been already identified as being in a "self-defense shooting". Remember the advice in other posts to tell cops "I' was afraid for my life"? That's a good thing. Remember that if it is a justifiable shooting, and the basic facts come out soon afterwards (reporters will interview law enforcement officer spokespeople on the scene) then you have a very good chance of working with media that will understand early on that it was a justifiable shooting. Good newspeople (they do still exist) will recognize the dynamics.

 

You can expect calls from the newspaper and TV stations all day and into the night and for a while after the shooting, so prepare your family accordingly. Stick to your spokesman unless your spouse is up to it. Joe or Spouse Soundbite is to repeat the script. Change a few words here and there as the hours progress so they have something different to put on the air...again, it's a sort of trade. If you give them tidbits to appease their editors and producers so that they can feed the monster, they'll give you a bit of room. They may contact your employer to find out what kind of person you are. Don't be surprised if they look for any criminal history...anything on the record will show up, particularly if the shooting has any hint of being anything other than self-defense. Going before a magistrate? If the magistrate permits, you may have cameras on you there as well.

 

When coming out of the Police Department, after talking to your attorney, you'll have another walkdown the same as before. Best to have your attorney come out, talk to reporters, and give a brief statement. If he's media savvy, he'll give the ground rules, just like Joe Soundbite did (see how this is coordinated?). It goes something like this:

 

Attorney: "Hey guys, gather round and I'll tell you what's up. First, no cameras for a second, okay? Fred is finishing up with the Police. It's been a long day, and we'd appreciate it if you'd give him and his family some room. That okay? Can you do that? We know you need statements and pictures, so here's the deal. He won't run from you guys if you don't chase him. I'm gonna give you guys a statement, answer as many questions as I can, and then we'll see if Fred is done and we'll walk out. How about we come out this door, we'll get in the elevator, and walk out the front door. He'll walk to the end of the block here and then we're gonna get in the car and that'll be it for today."

 

The attorney answers questions; his style at that point is his choice. He goes back and gets Fred (you), but before he comes out the door, he comes back out to the herd of reporters and says "we're about ready". What this does is look like you are cooperating fully, helping out the media who have been camped out not knowing when you'd appear. In essence, you are controlling your appearance, which is better than running the gauntlet. Give them a bit of what they want after setting up the guidelines. Most of the time, attorneys will help their client sneak out a back door. When that happens, media members form an impromptu "pool" that temporarily puts media competitors on the same team and increases resources...they will assign photographers to each door, with the agreement that whoever gets the video will share it with the other competing station. Again, give them a little bit, and they'll usually back off and won't resort to pool tactics or pack mentality. It works 90% of the time.

 

Do not discuss the case in any way shape or form. Don't give much personal information other than the most positive (Sunday school teacher, etc). Don't let anyone who is making statements say stuff like "Fred is well-trained...shoots IDPA...is on a tactics list." It will come out as "Fred trained to do this sort of shooting." THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS OFF THE RECORD, AND CAMERAS ARE ALWAYS ROLLING. It's the media version of "treat every gun as if it's loaded". Never let your guard down. Don't say anything stupid. Also, wireless mics are pretty much standard nowadays in TV. It's unethical, but sometimes a reporter will show up on a doorstep with no camera with the intention of getting someone on the record...with a photographer nearby recording the audio and pictures. Never be afraid to ask if you are being recorded (and ask them to stop if necessary and insist on an off-camera interview), and always assume that you are being recorded anyway to be safe. A good reporter will knock on the door, politely ask if you (or family member) will consent to be interviewed on camera. If not, will you make a statement off-camera? If not, can they get pictures of you and the reporter talking but without sound? You may feel like not saying anything, and that is your right. But if nothing else, comply with the last one (reasons follow), but be sure and ask if they are recording the conversation. Remember that while you may not want to give a statement, the victim's family certainly will, and it is best to be on the record in some way that makes you human. But do it in a controlled fashion. Never lose your cool, even if the reporter is a jerk. Let your attorney handle the folks who are on your private property against your wishes *after* you have officially, politely asked them to leave. Have your attorney place a phone call to the station's general manager or the newspaper's publisher. Crap rolls downhill, and no news director wants to hear from their boss that an employee was acting unethically. Expect to hear some sort of excuse about "reporting the news", so don't bother calling unless it's over-the-top aggressive tactics.

 

If the police report comes out favorably to the shooter, have the attorney, or family member, leak a copy of it. Send it first to the reporters who are cooperating with your request for some privacy.

 

Do NOT threaten reporters/photographers. One incident a few years back had a shooter threatening to *shoot* reporters if they came on his property. Not good <g>. If they do come onto your property, let the cops know. If the shooting happened on your property, the media will be behind crime scene tape and that distance is determined by Law enforcement officers. They will also look for other angles, like the street behind your house.

 

Take a look at your property and where the public right-of-way is. Once the crime scene tape comes down, the media knows where the right of way is and will sit there. This means that they can't sit on your lawn, but they can shoot from the sidewalk, or across the street. Remember that if you take an adversarial position with them, they will find ways to get pictures that are worse than those that you control--i.e, the controlled walkdown, the statement on the steps, etc. If you can get them away from your house by keeping all the statements at the PD or attorney's office, even better.

 

Also remember that the victim's family will be involved and may be interviewed. They *will* provide pictures of the victim to the media. As you can expect, the picture won't be of a snarling, crazed gunman who pulled a gun on you. It will be a picture of him at a family cookout or some pre-crack-addiction picture with him smiling and looking nice and neat, or him accepting the employee of the year award at work. You'll hear the relatives say "He was a great dad/son...he never hurt anyone...now what will we do now that Sally has no daddy?" That picture and interview will be shown in the same report as your picture going into the courthouse. The victim's family can talk for hours and make themselves heard to every reporter who will interview them. You're stuck with short soundbites through your attorney and spokesman at first. This is why image is so darned important. If the shooting incident goes as far as to change legislation (the Seagroves shooting in NC, for example) the pictures will be trotted out for years to come whenever the issue arises. Image is everything. Don't lose your cool. Take care of business with the Law enforcement officers and your attorney, then take care of your family. Make sure if you have kids that you help them deal with the focus that will be on your family. Keep young kids away from the TV initially since the pictures from the scene may be frightening to them. As soon or someone you trust has time, explain in appropriate detail the situation and the resulting publicity. Your kids may take some crap at school; your kid's teacher or guidance counselor may be able to help. Again, never release any info that may come back to haunt you.

 

Never play up to the camera. No Bible-thumping. No false tears (remember Susan Smith? Every newsroom in the county knew within 10 seconds of her first interview that she was guilty). No matter what you think of the media, there are usually professionals here and there in very market who will give balanced reports right up until the point where they feel you are manipulating them beyond what can be reasonably expected, but no further. Understand what they need to "feed the monster", give them enough to keep them out of your hair, but do not give them anything that will ever come back to haunt you.

 

Just my 2¢ worth. The counsel of your attorney and local Law enforcement officers takes precedence and none of this is legal advice.YMMV, etc. I'll be more than happy to answer any specific questions and I promise I won't be as long-winded. <g>

 

 

 

Victoria Deaton is a Photojournalist with over 12 years of experience working for major news organizations. She is also an avid shooter and an advocate of the 2nd Amendment and carrying concealed weapons.