Guidelines for Live Coverage
 
Despite the development of live video streaming apps, electronic journalists still have superior ability and opportunity to provide viewers and listeners with vital news information instantly. Journalists have a special responsibility in such situations to be accurate and to be measured in the tone of their coverage. A good guideline in such situations is to overreact in the newsroom and under-react on the air or online.
 
Going live has always presented dangers for reporters, but in the wake of some deadly and disturbing high-profile cases, newsrooms have had to revise policies to help keep staff safe in the field. 
 
Questions to ask before going live:
 
  • Are there extra resources to send out with your live team to provide additional security -- at least in situations recognized as unusually risky?
  • Is there a better, safer way to tell the story? Is it essential for a reporter to do a live standup in the middle of an alcohol-fueled, rowdy crowd, or can it be done somewhere else and still provide the visual context and content needed?
  • What alternatives to the traditional live shot should be considered in light of safety concerns? 
Going “live” from a disaster zone, shooting scene, protest or rally can also present unique challenges.  The information is often unvetted, out of context, unconfirmed and changing constantly. So what do you do to provide an accurate picture of what’s happening?
 
  • It’s essential for news managers -- ideally, news directors -- to be hands on in these situations and walk a team through the story as it unfolds. Guiding live reporters and photographers regarding tone, use of language, and choice of visuals and/or audio helps to ensure the information is accurate and to minimize harm.
  • Some “eyewitness” accounts require respectful and thoughtful skepticism. Asking good questions can help separate legitimate sources from those who just want to get on the air or hope to advance a particular political perspective. Such questions include:
    • Can you show me exactly where you were when you saw this?
    • What initially drew your attention to the incident?
    • What else were you able to see/hear/observe?
    • Reporters should “pre-interview” as much as possible before going live.  
A special note about law enforcement in live reporting:
 
  • During breaking news events such as protests, riots and rallies, police sometimes impede journalists’ access to the story, sometimes resorting to the use of force and arrest. Reporters and photojournalists need to know their rights and their responsibilities. News managers need to set clear expectations and establish practical protocols for field crews before such incidents occur.
Beyond competitive factors, what are your motivations for going live? Why do your viewers need to know about this story before journalists have the opportunity to filter the information off the air? What truth testing are you willing to give up in order to speed information to the viewer?
 
  • Are you prepared to air the worst possible outcome that could result from this unfolding story? (such as, a person killing himself or someone during live coverage.) What outcomes are you not willing to air? Why? How do you know the worst possible outcome will not occur?
  • How does the journalist know that the information they have is true? How many sources have confirmed the information? How does the source know what they say is true? What is this source's past reliability? How willing is the source to be quoted?
  • What are the consequences, short-term and long-term, of going on the air with the information? What are the consequences of waiting for additional confirmation or for a regular newscast?
  • What is the tone of the coverage? How can the journalist raise viewer awareness of a significant event while minimizing unnecessary hype and fear? Who in your newsroom is responsible for monitoring the tone of what is being broadcast? -
  • What electronic safety net such as a tape and signal delay has your station considered that could minimize harm and could give your station time to dump out of live coverage if the situation turns graphic, violent or compromises the safety of others?
  • How clearly does the technical crew at your news outlet understand the standards for graphic content? How well are guidelines understood by directors, tape editors, live shot techs, photojournalists, pilots or engineers who might have to make an editorial call when the news director or other formal decision-maker is not available?
  • What factor does the time of day play in your decision to cover a breaking event? For example, if the event occurs when children normally are watching television, how does that fact alter the tone and degree of your coverage?

Originally created through RTDNF's Ethics Project by Al Tompkins, broadcast/online group leader at The Poynter Institute. Updated by the RTDNA Ethics Committee.