Daily Guide editor Natalie Sanders offers up an opinion editorial on responsible news coverage and practices.
The recent shooting brought up a subject that I believe is important and felt deserved an opinion editorial. I don't often write them, unless it's about fun things, because I believe it's important for your newspaper editor, and newspaper in general, to be unbiased.
My opinion should not and does not enter into the equation when I'm bringing you the news. You'll not ever see me write an editorial on political candidates, morality, or other things because my opinion isn't important on those things. Yours is, to you, and my job is to report the facts, and just the facts. I hope, you, the reader, trust this to be true because it's honestly how I feel about the subject.
Today, I'm writing to you about something I believe is so important that I'm breaking a personal rule and expressing an opinion on it in our publications, both in print and online. In today's era of "fake news" and all time low of confidence in journalists in general, there's something I believe is vitally important and has come up several times during our most recently, heavily covered story.
As you know, there was a tragic shooting in our community last week where two people were killed and two were seriously injured. In the first hours and even up to now, rumors, scanner traffic, and the community grape-vine are offering up unverified, inaccurate, information that can have a detrimental effect on the family members of the victims and hinder law enforcement's investigation of the crime.
My job is to report the news. The real news. News that has been verified, that is factual, that you can trust is the actual news. If I have not reported it, it means that I have not verified it, a court document, an official, or other source that can be trusted has agreed that it's true, or it's just a flat-out rumor.
It is the policy of this editor to not report scanner traffic. The scanner is a tool. It lets you know something is going on. It is not gospel though and anyone in law enforcement will tell you that is true. What you hear over the scanner is the immediate response to a situation, where responders do not know all the facts, have not had time to put them together, are following leads, but the information is incomplete. Listening to it or reporting it, can lead to bad information being believed by the public and can even be dangerous.
My good friend, JB King just stopped by for a visit, and we talked about the issue. He said something that I think is important for people to know and understand. He said that the first 20 minutes or more of scanner traffic on any situation is mostly wrong. It's not wrong because law enforcement is doing anything wrong, it's wrong because there isn't enough information yet for it to be right. Witnesses are in shock, they're not necessarily very accurate in descriptions or may not agree about events.
The old saying there are two sides to every story is inaccurate. If there are six people present, then there are six sides to every story. That's six different perceptions of what happened. Law enforcement has to sift through those six different perceptions, gather evidence, and figure out what the truth is and that takes time. The scanner cannot provide that kind of accurate information.
During the first hours after the shooting, I received messages and phone calls from individuals listening to the scanner or hearing things from people listening to the scanner. They were terrified and worried that a crazed gunman was on the loose and would be bursting through the doors any moment. A description of a suspect was floating around on social media that purportedly came from scanner traffic and law enforcement.
The truth was that law enforcement wasn't sure who they were looking for yet and were just sharing leads and ideas with one another over the radio. There wasn't a solid description or vehicle that they could be sure of.
Unfortunately, a description of a suspect and a vehicle began to circulate among scanner hounds and then on social media. The description was vague and actually could have fit 50 or more individuals in this county, including the husband of a good friend of mine, whom I could guarantee was not the suspect law enforcement was looking for. People were afraid and telling one another they were "locked and loaded."
I suddenly had visions of my friend's husband accidentally being shot by a neighbor or someone who didn't know him because he fit a vague description and people were very afraid. This is why I do not report scanner traffic. It turned out that the vehicle description that was being passed around wasn't even accurate.
I believe reporting scanner traffic is irresponsible and one thing you can rely on from the Daily Guide is responsible reporting practices. We also do not report rumors and we don't give voice to rumors. Several rumors have been floating around since the shooting and I'm not going to name what they are here because it's irresponsible to repeat unverified, and in many cases, flat-out wrong information. Someone invariably sees it and repeats it, then it becomes like that game of telephone. I might have said it was wrong to start with, but three or four people down the line - it becomes a fact.
The Daily Guide will not be reporting anything that isn't verified information. Just because you heard it from several people, doesn't make it true.