When it comes to breaking news, words matter

Note: This is one of several blog posts written by Shorthorn staffers about the conferences or training they attended. Today’s blog post written by Matt Fulkerson about what he learned during the SPJ Region 8 Conference in Norman, OK.

I distinctly remember the morning of the Oklahoma City bombing on April 19, 1995. I remember looking at the images of destruction as they played across TV screens and wondering how anyone could possibly consider taking the lives of so many people in such a devastating way.

As horrified as I was, I can’t imagine the pain and suffering felt by those directly impacted by the bombing of the Murrah federal building. Even now, it’s hard to imagine how I would handle this type of situation as a reporter.

Last month marked 20 years since that horrible day. But Joe Hight, veteran reporter from The Oklahoman and key note speaker for the Region 8 SPJ conference in Oklahoma City doesn’t need to imagine what the events of that day were like. He was there. He spoke with the victims and their families. He told their stories and worked hard to do so responsibly.

Hight used his time to talk with us about how much words matter and how important it is to get the facts right the first time. Almost immediately, speculation about the culprits behind the attack began to fly around the media. Most assumed it was some sort of attack on America by Islamic extremists. They were wrong of course and these factual inaccuracies have helped to spur ongoing conspiracies about the bombing that continue even today and brought confusion to an already complicated story.

Hight implored us, as members of the media, to consider our words carefully before we publish them. He specifically asked that we think about the word “anniversary” when used in the context of traumatic events. For many, the word carries connotations of happiness and celebration, yet we consistently use it in our writing to mark impactful and destructive events.

While it may seem trivial to those of us that weren’t directly affected, the use of specific words can have a major impact on those who were. As we approach this day of remembrance, it’s important that we not view people solely as sources leading us to our next big story. It’s important that we see them, and our readers, as human beings. It’s important that we understand how our words can unintentionally harm the very readers for whom we should be working.

As reporters, photographers and editors, we are gatekeepers of information. How we frame the news and use our words is how the public will view the story. If that seems like a lot of power, that’s because it is. It’s important that we use this power conscientiously and the first step toward meeting this heavy responsibility is choosing our words carefully and understanding the impact they will have on others.

It’s important to remember the role we play. It’s important that we all take the step towards responsible journalism together.

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