(updated 6-28) Cooper Harris: Media Struggle to Report on Tragedy

The news in Atlanta this week has been full of stories around the tragic story of a 22-month-old boy who died after being left in his father’s car all day in Atlanta with heat in the 90s.  We all know that those outside temps can mean that it can be 150 degrees or more in the car.

if you’re not familiar with the story, here’s a link with an overview:  http://www.13wmaz.com/story/news/local/georgia/2014/06/26/cobb-county-boy-died-of-hyperthermia/11394989/.

Video LInk: http://www.wsbtv.com/videos/news/source-cobb-father-knew-child-was-left-in-hot-car/vCf79x/.

The local police quickly decided the father’s story didn’t quite add up.  They’ve arrested him and charged him with felony murder and second degree cruelty to a child.  But, they haven’t been releasing much detail of why they made the arrest so quickly, driving local media to push all their sources for details.

Update 6-28: A warrant released today has more details, http://www.ajc.com/news/news/warrant-cobb-toddlers-dad-researched-child-deaths-/ngT29/

So when the police won’t talk with the media, what’s hard-working reporter to do?  The answer is generally to look for all angles and report every detail.  But, some of the coverage has been somewhat speculative.

The question becomes: Should the police be giving out more details on this case? In this situation, the child is deceased and they probably think they have the most likely suspect in custody, whether he did what he did accidentally or intentionally.  Their focus at this point is on gathering evidence, determining exactly what happened, and building a case if it goes that way.

In a news vacuum, media outlets will sometimes report rumors that don’t always follow the “two sources” rule. One local TV reporter (Fox5’s Randy Travis) has info regarding the father’s work computer that other media haven’t been able to confirm from police sources.  So, other media are just referring to the TV station as the source. Interestingly, some reports aren’t mentioning that Fox5 was the source, just referring to a local TV station.  Give credit where it’s due, folks!

  •  There was a short-lived social media effort supporting the father, but it was pulled down when the situation became less than straightforward (http://www.wsbradio.com/news/news/local/toddlers-dad-gains-support-social-media/ngS4W/).  The video that was produced was very well produced.  It came out quickly after he was arrested, but it is unclear as to who created or posted the video.
  • A video campaign can be very effective, but the timing has to be right and the campaign has to adapt quickly as details become public.
  • The mother has not spoken publicly, which is probably her best strategy until it’s clear what happened.

I’d like to hear input from local media on how they’re covering this story.  Add your comments here or email me and I’ll add them into the story.

Mitch Leff is The Atlanta PR Guy. He’s the president of Leff & Associates Public Relations (www.leffassociates.com), an Atlanta-based PR agency. Leff also operates Leff’s Atlanta Media (www.leffsatlantamedia.com) an online database with contact info for thousands of Atlanta-based journalists, and Mitch’s Media Match (www.mitchsmediamatch.com), a service that connects Atlanta journalists with local experts and sources.

Contact him at mitch@leffassociates.com, (404) 861-4769, on Twitter (@mitchleffPR), or on Facebook.




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