Breaking News - The Anatomy of a Tragic News Story
The tragic events surrounding the Humboldt Broncos bus crash and the emotional reaction to it that continues a week and a half after it happened, will likely result in it being named the biggest news story of the year in Canada at the end of 2018.
Regardless of how impactful the story was, it followed a familiar pattern of media coverage since the news of the crash broke a week ago Friday night. In most cases, we see four fairly distinct phases of media coverage for major news stories. They can vary in length, but rarely stray from a predictable pattern.
It always seems strange how stories fall from the front pages of newspapers and from the top story on the 6:00 news, but it's as natural as night following day.
Phase 1 - Shock and Scramble
Put yourself in the position of an Editor at a newspaper, or Assignment Editor for a television station and you get word of a huge news story that’s just occurred. It may not be in your city, but it’s close enough for you to get a reporter to who can start sending coverage almost as soon as they arrive.
This happened a week ago Friday evening to many news outlets on the prairies when we first got word of the Humboldt Broncos bus crash. At first, there were reports from the scene of “multiple causalities”, which although it didn’t sound good, could have meant a lot of things. The RCMP eventually confirmed that, but didn’t announce any specific numbers until the following morning when we got the horrible news that 14 people on the bus had been killed and many others were in hospital.
Anyone would be shocked by the news. An Editor would think about other similar tragedies involving sports teams and remember the impact those stories had, or perhaps about the sports trips their children had made. However, you need to quickly get back to your job and review the information you have and perhaps make a few phone calls before deciding what you’ll immediately put on the air and whether to send reporters to cover the story right away.
Social media is a huge tool in determining the extent of major news stories like this. It didn’t exist when I was in the media, but I can certainly see how it would help in understanding what's happened in a situation like this. Despite the help, editors still require the ability to assess the information they have on a breaking story and then use their news judgement to, in a way, predict the impact of the story without really knowing what they’re dealing with. Not easy.
Phase 2 - What Journalism is All About
At this point in the story, most of the facts are known and your audience is hearing the story for the first time. Obviously they’re also shocked by the news, but you have a reporter or reporters on the scene and they’re covering as much as they can, sending stories back for on air purposes, most of them packed with emotion.
This is what journalism is all about. For reporters, it’s being in the middle of the action and although tragic stories can result in an emotional toll on reporters because they’re so close to people whose lives may never be the same, there’s also some satisfaction that you’re able to tell a story as well as possible, while still being respectful to those whose lives have been affected.
No two major stories are the same. While there were some similarities between the Humboldt bus crash and the Fort McMurray fire of two years ago, there were also some major differences. The effect of something like a terrible highway accident happens in a few seconds, while the major impact felt by “The Beast” in Fort McMurray lasted for few days, and of course the fire continued to burn for months.
Phase 3 - How Much is Too Much?
This is the hardest phase for media outlets to manage. It typically occurs about three to four days after a major story has broken and all the major angles have been covered and it normally lasts for a couple of days.
In this phase, reporters look for fresh information and angles to keep a story going, but understand that they’re entering the story burnout phase and they start to ask if they should cover the story in a different way. They wonder if their audience has moved on and quite frankly media outlets get concerned that they’re still covering a story that people are beginning to lose some interest in.
That may sound harsh, but it’s part of the fine line that news organizations walk. They run the risk of being seen as “milking” the story, while some members of the public feel families should receive more privacy once the basic details have been reported. As an example, I saw several comments in social media that images of the Humboldt crash site shouldn’t have been shown because it was too hard on the families.
Phase 4 - The Follow Up
This normally occurs about a week after the story first breaks, as the story gets displaced from the lead item in most radio and TV newscasts and slips from the front page of newspapers.
We saw this with Humboldt too. Last Friday night, a week after the crash occurred, the big story in the news was American-led air strikes on Syria. This past Sunday it was the meeting about the Trans Mountain Pipeline issue in Ottawa and that story dominated headlines in the west for the last couple of days.
That’s just the way news works. What seems to be the biggest story of the year one day, can’t find its way into the headlines two weeks later. During this phase, there will be developments that will bring the story back to the front pages. We saw some of that yesterday with the emotional memorial service at Rogers Place in Edmonton for four Humboldt Broncos players killed in the crash who were from the Edmonton area.
I expect the Humboldt story will return to the headlines in a major way when charges are eventually laid against the driver of the semi-truck that collided with the Humboldt team bus.
What’s also happening more and more with major stories such as this is, social media is allowing millions of people to have a voice to share their emotions and find ways to pay tribute to victims. That certainly was the case with Humboldt, as social media became a large part of the emotional outpouring across Canada and around the world.