The Professional Interviewee

Today’s blog entry is a follow up to yesterday’s post “Once Upon a Nonprofit…

The news media has perfected the art of storytelling thanks to audience participation. Today’s coverage of the shooting at a Colorado cinema during a midnight showing of Batman: The Dark Knight Rises can serve as a lesson in how the ever growing pool of citizens willing to jump in front of a camera is necessary to construct an engaging story.

Building a Foundation Quickly

As police in Aurora, Colorado were notified around 12:39 am MT that a gunman was firing into a crowded theater, audience members were trying to escape. Minutes later video was being posted of survivors staggering through the theaters front doors, stained in blood. The citizen journalist was once again leading the effort to share breaking news.

Unable to wait for dispatched news crews to send in footage, stations frequently rely on first hand reports to begin their coverage of an event. Today was no different as shaky, grainy, handheld video and photos were shared online.

As the seed of the story gained momentum the media began the early stages of research that would shape the story throughout the day.

“Pounding the Pavement”

Today’s media continues to collect data by asking the age-old questions: Who, What, When, Where, Why and How. Several of the members of the audience were quick to share their accounts of the shooting. Gone are the days of “No comment” and “Get that camera out of my face.” Now exists a collection of citizens who are comfortable sharing emotional details as if they each underwent media training in grade school.

As the details of the shooting were collected, it was up to the press to perform traditional research, including speaking with police sources, to identify the suspected gunman.

Early this morning, 24 year-old James Eagan Holmes, a neuroscience PhD candidate living in Colorado, was identified as the suspect. It took several hours, but sure enough a photo emerged and has since been said to be the face hiding behind the gas mask during the attack.

B Roll

This story extended to a secondary story regarding booby traps and incendiary devices that are suspected to be at the home of James Holmes. Camera crews grabbed some footage of officials on fire engine ladders as they broke windows. However, with little progress and incoming reports that entry to the apartment might not be gained until several days, the media ran loops of their B roll without much news to share.

President Barack Obama took the stage quickly today as well as presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Neither provided more than a brief soundbite for news updates.

The Side Story

At this point we saw the emergence of more than one side story. In a 24-hour news cycle it is necessary to grow stories beyond their basic details.

Jessica Ghawi

The first side story that I saw was the story of Jessica Ghawi, a young woman who was feared dead at the time of writing this entry. Jessica narrowly escaped a shooting in Canada recently when she left a mall after feeling an odd sensation only moments before a gunman opened fire at a food court.

Jessica’s friends came forward to discuss her love of life, kindness to others and her aspirations to be a sports reporter. As photos of Jessica were acquired, more friends called in, at least one with a professional head shot from the news station where she works.

Jennifer Seeger

The second side story was Twilight t-shirt wearing Jennifer Seeger, a survivor who had a rifle in her face earlier in the day and lived to tell the tale. Jennifer recounted her scramble to safety as she guided others out of the theater. On more than one occasion she mentioned her willingness to “take a bullet” for several of the people with whom she shared this experience.

After Jennifer provided multiple interviews, repeatedly on CNN into the afternoon, she became increasingly poised, as she surely must have been feeling the after effects of shock. However, her repetition of phrases appeared studied as if she was performing for the camera. At one point she repeated how she would have taken a bullet for a man she was helping only to recount how she fled once she heard the gunman was returning; an inconsistency that hopefully will not appear in her assured future on the talk show circuit.

Gossip and Rumor

Throughout the day the media was also sure to feed us gossip and rumor in the form of an eerie quote from James Holmes’ mother and hints at a connection with the Batman movie being shown in the theater.

In early reports, ABC obtained a quote from the mother of James Holmes: “You have the right person.” It was an unsettling statement that has yet to be fully explored but continues to be mentioned with some repetition as the side stories fade away.

A rumor was also shared that James Holmes had died his hair red and told police that he was The Joker in reference to the Batman villain. This report, oddly enough, came out of the NYPD, where the police chief of Aurora had previously served. Chief Dan Oates informed the media during a brief press conference that he had spoken with his former colleagues but that he would not divulge the content of that conversation.

Lessons in Storytelling

The news media is often a subtle machine. Every hour of every day they are perfecting their abilities to obtain key interviews, perform research quickly and shape stories into a narrative that is sure to hook an audience.

The many moving parts of modern news media noisily attract our attention whenever a tragedy strikes. It is during these unfortunate events that there are frequently multiple players, more than one or two angles and crowds of people providing content and eager to speak up.

A successful storyteller can learn a lot from following the news media…good and bad.

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