Covering the latest school shooting? Here's a model story for journalists

“You could almost auto-populate these stories: just fill in the where-it-happened and how-many-killed. You just add the color and the details.”

— Lulu Ramadan, a 23-year-old Palm Beach Post reporter, on covering her third mass shooting (The New Yorker, Feb. 15)

A gunman sprayed bullets throughout a [town, state] school earlier today, killing at least [minimum number dead] people, including children, and wounding another [minimum number injured]. The suspected shooter, identified by police as [name, age], is [select: among the dead, among the injured, at large, in custody].

Terrified parents raced to the scene as they began receiving texts from their children trapped inside the building. There were tears of joy as families reunited on the school lawn, and agonizing wails of sorrow as some parents realized their children were not among the survivors.

“I was beyond terrified when I heard the first reports and saw the SWAT teams and helicopters outside the school,” one mother said. “You can imagine my relief when my daughter texted me that she was OK and locked down in the [school room]. ”

The nightmare began at approximately [time] when witnesses reported hearing repeated gunshots.

“It sounded like fireworks, or a car backfiring. It took me a few second to realize that I was actually hearing gunshots,” said [student]. “It seemed like they went on forever.” The shooter is believed to have fired at least [number] rounds over a three-minute period.

“This is a horrendous tragedy,” said Sheriff [name]. “You just never expect this type of incident to happen in your own town, in your local school.” Officials reported this was the largest school shooting since [recent date], in which [number of dead] people were gunned down in [town].

“This is the worst day of our lives. We grieve for the students, educators and bystanders who were killed,” added School Superintendent [name]. “Our thoughts and prayers are with their families and also with those who are injured and their families.”

At nearby [hospital], emergency room physician [name] said she had not seen victims “so severely injured” since serving in [name of war].

[Name], who lived next door to the suspect, said [select: “The warning signs were there. I just wish someone had recognized them earlier”; “I never would have thought he was capable of this; he was always so quiet.”]

President Donald Trump tweeted, “Arm teachers against sicko shooters!!!!” Ten minutes later, the president also tweeted, “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families during this trying time.”

[Republican senator] cautioned against “politicizing this tragedy.” He added: “This is not about controlling access to guns, it’s about improving access to mental health care.”

It appears that the suspect purchased his firearm legally [select: at a gun shop, at a sporting goods store, at a superstore, at a pawnshop, from a friend, from a licensed dealer; at a gun show; online] despite [select: a history of violence; a history of mental illness; a public screed on Facebook detailing his plans].

[Democratic senator] demanded action from lawmakers and said she will be introducing legislation to tighten gun control: “As I said after last Thursday’s shooting, and the shooting two weeks ago Friday, and the shooting last month, Congress must step up to the plate and do something.”

[School] will be closed for the rest of the week, reopening Monday. Superintendent [name] said counselors will be on hand next week to “assist students and staff who may have difficulty returning to the scene of such horrific violence.” A GoFundMe page has been set up to assist with funeral costs.

Outside the school, students set up a makeshift memorial, made up of several crosses surrounded by stuffed animals, flowers and photos of the victims.

SEE RELATED STORY: How events progressed: 3 terrifying minutes

SEE RELATED STORY: Profiles of the victims: a cheerleader, a trumpet player, a beloved coach, a volunteer parent

Gregory M. Stein (gstein@utk.edu) is a professor of law at the University of Tennessee College of Law.

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