Behind The Scenes
28Jan/130

Evolution of coverage (school lockdown edition)

Late Sunday night, along with many parents of students in the Brattleboro-area school system, the Reformer newsroom learned of a security issue schools would be dealing with on Monday morning.

That news reached parents late Sunday night in the form of an automated calling system. By the time the newsroom learned of the calls, it was past print deadline. The night editor called me at home, and we discussed possible coverage for several minutes.

There were several questions: Who could we reach late on a Sunday night? A town official? A school official? Surely the police ...

We reached out to the police, but the only information we could get was that "this was the schools' decision" and that they (school officials) would be the ones to answer any questions.

By this time, there was already several concerned posts on the Reformer's Facebook page asking for more information.

Knowing there was little to no information to be had (which is sometimes the case with any news story), I made the decision not to fan the flames of concern. Independently, day editor Bob Audette acknowledged the calls went out via a Facebook post.

Early Monday morning, people continued to post on Facebook throughout the night, frustrated at the lack of available information. Consider some of these posts from readers throughout the day:

"They wanted to sound like they were on top of things but with all the vagueness all they did was cause a mass panic. The kids are all scared and nobody wants to send them to school today."

"Very disappointed in the lack of info! These are our children!!!! This is why scary things can happen! All threats should be taken very seriously!"

"I appreciate that the schools and police are doing what they can to keep our kids safe in school. That said, they knew about this on Friday, sent the message on Sunday NIGHT, and released no details that might empower parents to make safe decisions for their children. I think our educators are amazing and dedicated people, but I think the WSESU and the authorities handled this appallingly poorly. Shame on them."

"Hopefully by morning the town officials/law enforcement will have enlightened us AND the media as to what the hell is going on ... They need to make any information they have public ... Just having the schools call parents with this little information is enough to put the whole county into panic ... If there was in fact a threat made then the schools should have been canceled ... We can't risk the safety of our children..or teachers or anyone for that matter."

I immediately got to work collecting any information I could -- on the call, the background, from officials. By 6 a.m. I was able to listen to one of the calls online and post a transcript, along with a brief statement from Windham Southeast Supervisory Union Superintendent Ron Stahley from a local radio station and the comment from the night before from local police. By 9-9:30 a.m., the town had issued a press release. The WSESU office confirmed Stahley was visiting local schools and talking to officials all morning.

Various pieces of the puzzle continued to fall into place throughout the morning, until a reporter arrived in the newsroom and I was able to have a brief meeting to share all I had learned, and offer guidance on how to proceed throughout the rest of the day. By Monday evening, our full coverage was live online at Reformer.com.

Before leaving the office, I answered a few questions from the reporter on how we chose to handle coverage over the previous 12 hours or so:

The late notification also impacted how the threat information was disseminated in other ways. Reformer Editor Tom D'Errico said he decided to initially post the news on the newspaper's less-formal Facebook site while waiting for more information before publishing updates in the printed edition.

"We were trying to be very sensitive when this news first came to light Sunday night in the newsroom. Above all, we wanted to be able to provide information in context," D'Errico said. "Aside from the robocall parents were already receiving, no other officials were available at that time."

Whether it's a situation like today, a possible fatal accident, or perhaps vague reports of a shooting at well-known local hotspot, local news organizations had a responsibility to avoid reporting rumor, share news and "get it right." With the increased use of social media tools like Facebook and Twitter, there's a constant pressure and demand to report the news faster. These tools make that possible, but at the same time it's our responsibility, as professional journalists, to continue following the rules that made us trusted sources of local news to begin with.

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