Those of us who are lucky enough to still have jobs in the news media have to navigate a twisting, narrow path when it comes to deciding what information to report and when.
The rise of social media makes it more difficult, especially when it comes to breaking news. Sometimes the information reported by amateurs on the internet is plain inaccurate, but more often, it is not yet verified. Waiting for confirmation of the facts makes the news media look like it isn’t on the story. That might be true, but sometimes it means we are waiting for verification and attribution before reporting what we’ve heard from a purported witness or over the police radio.
I was reminded of this earlier this week when I was watching the local morning news on one of the Portland TV stations. The traffic reporter was repeating that Highway 30 in Oregon was closed for “police activity,” but as the broadcast continued, he didn’t add anything except to suggest some detour routes. By about the third time he told the same story, I could tell he was getting heat on social media from viewers who had seen a bunch of other unverified reports, also on social media, and thought they knew the story. Maybe their accounts were right, but police were still too busy to confirm any details. To his credit, the reporter stuck to what he could say with confidence.
A few hours later, the whole story came out: A man with a gun shot at a gas station and passing motorists. After being located a few miles away, he was shot and killed by police. Once the facts were confirmed, the TV station reported them, although I suspect too slowly in the minds of some people.
We had a similar situation at the recent shooting at the Smith Tower. We have a written agreement with local law enforcement and Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency, which does the 911 dispatching, to lease a police radio. For the last couple of years, local police frequencies have been encrypted, meaning that the general public can’t listen by purchasing a scanner or tuning into the feed on the internet. Part of the reason we have this agreement is that we agree to be judicious about what we report.
In this case, we heard quite a bit of information over the radio as the incident was unfolding, including both the name of the suspect and the name of the man who was shot to death. Should we report those names?
Of course not. Neither name had been verified. There are a lot of things happening at an active crime scene, and preliminary reports are just that — preliminary. We don’t want to inadvertently report information at an active police scene that could benefit a criminal. Writing something like “The cops are hiding in the alley waiting for the bank robbers” would be a very, very bad thing to report, either on our website or on social media. Nor would I want to inadvertently tell a family a loved one had died.
We faced another kind of dilemma at the Smith Tower, too. Its downtown location, a few blocks from our office, meant that we were able to react quickly and send several journalists to the scene.
They got there ahead of many of the police officers and quickly took up positions across the street where they were out of the way, but could see what was going on. Because we could see the events unfold, we actually ended up with a different problem.
From her good vantage point, Photo Editor Amanda Cowan ended up with some very intense photos, a few of which we thought were too graphic to publish. I wrote about this dilemma last year, so I will spare you the repetition, but I did want to share the photo we ended up using as our lead image in print and online. It balances journalism with respect for our readers and the victim.
Bottom line: It takes news media time to decide what to report and when to report it, but in the end, the readers are entitled to a comprehensive report, with verified facts.