Dear Journalists: Don't Be This Guy

This is not a story that needs to reach a large audience, just the right one. If you are a journalist or know one, please share.

Twitter was my first destination after I heard about last week's terror attack in Paris. Along with many of you, I thumbed through in a futile effort to make sense of the situation. Eventually, I saw this guy posting selfies on his way to cover the incident:

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After a horrific tragedy like the one in Paris, your work should not scream, "Look at meeeee!" You are not the story.

Some of these selfies were shared by the station's main account and even by their news director. None of them responded after I asked them about it on Twitter.

The person who posted these is one of the most high-profile TV anchors in Los Angeles, with more Edward R. Murrow awards and Emmys than he could have fit into his suitcase. He's also spoken to college students about the role of social media in journalism. But even those expected to set an example can make mistakes.

He won't be the last to do this and he certainly wasn't the first. Al Roker apologized for a similar blunder last month. Anderson Cooper shamed a reporter into apologizing for seeking a selfie at another tragedy last year. Other young local news reporters have learned the hard way, and hopefully this guy reconsidered before he posted.

Why does any of this matter? Because journalists are attention brokers. Whatever your perspective on modern media, you can't deny that journalists are still really, really good at getting people to see their story, photo, 360-degree VR video, cat gif or, well ... selfie. It's a powerful skill, and it should be used responsibly. This is what continues to separate professional journalists from the din of social media.

As sometimes happens on the internet, I've prepared a little bait-and-switch for you. This isn't just about inappropriate selfies but about the kind of journalist you want to be when covering tragedy. You clicked this because I said, "Don't be this guy," but I want you to share this as you reflect on a tough question about your role as an attention broker ...

How do you cover the Paris attack without giving terrorists exactly what they want: attention and the spread of fear?

I'm not sure there's a right answer and I don't pretend to know it. I'm just asking you to have the conversation with your colleagues. Make conscientious decisions about how you use your influence to spread stories. If you don't know where to start, here are some questions that can help you tackle breaking news.

Have I provided enough context? This is the greatest tool journalists wield, for good, bad or otherwise. Used correctly, it might be how you prevent terrorists from using you as their conduit to spread fear. Don't censor your reporting. Do use your judgment.

Am I accidentally sensationalizing the bad guy? There's nothing noble about giving equal weight to a psychopath's side of the story. Worse, by raising the culprit's profile you can encourage copycats. That's not to suggest that you shouldn't report the facts, but don't play up the wrong part or overdo the story. Studies have drawn a connection between the amount of terrorism coverage and the number of follow-up attacks. The relationship between news coverage and copycat domestic gun violence has also been well documented. These days, some news organizations are learning to watch their language and avoid the perpetrators' names, images, videos and manifestos. They still provide a complete report, but they take care to prepare it professionally.

I hate to mention "Jihadi John" at all, but his case holds a valuable lesson for journalists. His victims may have chosen the nickname, but the media chose to amplify it. Repeating the catchy moniker in headlines is what glamorized this monster and turned him into a celebrity. The media gave him exactly what he wanted. His apparent death grabbed even more headlines, but it was an empty "victory." No stories underneath those headlines actually indicated that he was a senior figure or even held a significant operational role. He was merely a symbol -- one we created, ourselves. It's not that he wasn't worth reporting on, but he never deserved a bright marquee.

Does this need to be fact checked? Of course it does. One of the best services you can provide is quickly debunking things so they don't get more attention than they deserve. That applies to claims on social media or even from government authorities. Question everything.

Can I empower people to help? Online "action" is often limited to donating money or signing a petition, but in an emergency the local angles are critical. Hospitals may need blood, and individuals may need shelter, food or water.

Did I give my audience fair warning? They probably don't have as strong a stomach for this as you do. They may have kids in the room. Don't surprise them with anything.

Does this add value to the conversation? Please stop repeating random celebrity tweets that say the same thing as everybody else. It's pathetic and shallow (not the sentiment, but the parroting). If you have broadcast air to fill, repeat the facts. That said, don't shy away from powerful reactions.

Is this gratuitous? You're here to inform, not make gore porn to entertain sickos. There's a difference. Taste matters to audiences large and small. If you're really stumped, ask yourself if you'd be proud to share your work with a loved one.

Am I respecting the victims? Follow the Golden Rule and have some empathy. Don't ask stupid questions. Be careful about promoting those who vilify innocent groups. Even in the process of debunking, that promotion can have collateral consequence.

Who are the heroes? There are always heroes. We could use some of their stories right about now, whether it's people or even companies doing the right thing.

What worked and how could it be even better? Sometimes a good story is as straightforward as explaining which decisions saved lives. In the heat of the moment, it was hard to miss Facebook's Safety Check, which seemed to deliver on the technology's promise. But it wasn't without criticism, and that may be leading to some improvements.

Do relief organizations need to be held accountable? Probably. Just ask Haiti.

Is this story too much about me? Did you take a selfie? Gonzo journalism might work for certain investigations, but it's hard to imagine breaking news scenarios where it's appropriate.

Did I get it right? We're all human and mistakes will be made. Given the scale of mass media and the reality of being human, it's inevitable. If you get a correction or notice your own error, fix it and fight to get the truth the attention it deserves. Be earnest.

Reflecting on these questions may save you from mistakes, but in the wake of Paris there's much more to strive for.

The real story is harder than breaking news. When we rush to tell the story of the moment, there will always be another. Like the United States' domestic gun violence, the terror attack in Paris follows an endless march in cities you probably haven't even heard of. It's not that we should compare tragedies, but we must not forget the context. What has happened in France is tragic. What has happened this year in Nigeria, Kenya and elsewhere is also tragic, and at times deadlier.

The media should do its basic job and report the facts, but it should never be satisfied.

We need stories that develop understanding. What conditions could allow such evil to take hold? These are not cartoon villains formed in our imaginations, but forged in environments that humanity should not allow to fester. Is the enemy merely one terrorist organization, or is it the environment from which it sprang?

The world has plenty of knowledge, wealth and other means. How are we so unable to help our fellow men and women -- and above all children -- to find a way to their own happiness that respects the happiness of others?

This is not a story about moments but about generations.

Be the one who tells this story.

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