You wake up to a message from the university's emergency alert system telling you that an attempted sexual assault has occurred on campus overnight. Because of the questions and emotions that come with this kind of alert, this is news that no student wants to hear. For you, a student reporter, the information brings another layer of emotion and an adrenaline rush. It's time to start reporting an important story for your campus community. You head to the newsroom as quickly as possible, message other editors and make calls in the process. The police dispatcher at the university tells you that the chief of police is out of office today during training and that he is the only person who can talk to you about the "incident". You know it doesn't comply with state open records laws, but it's no use deciding to argue with her. You call the person in charge on his cell phone and he gives you in this case. He tells you he doesn't know much about the "incident" because he's not on campus, but he emails you a police report that includes everything he knows. He quotes you "safety is the number one priority on campus," and then tells you that he won't have much time today, but will be happy to answer any other questions you have when he gets back to the office tomorrow.
Police reports are in your inbox when you get to the newsroom. It provides basic information. A female student was grabbed by an unidentified male as she walked from the library back to her dorm. The man commented that he sexually assaulted her as she struggled to break free. Thankfully, the woman was able to escape and run to the nearest emergency phone. The report gives the time, approximate location, an extremely vague description of the suspect, and only tells you the woman's age and that she is a student. You have many questions. Where exactly does this happen on campus? Is the student alone? How long does it take for the police to respond? Do the police think the man is a student? What happened after the woman reported the crime? Is there a campus search industry mailing list any notification other than the warning text? What are campus police doing now? What should students do to protect themselves? It seems you have more questions than answers. You try to call the police chief again, hoping you can get some quick follow-up questions. Your call will go directly to voicemail. He'd love to call you back, but who knows when that's going to happen. At the same time, the campus rumor mill is going wild, and the alarm is something anyone is talking about, whether in person or on social media. Some campus insiders even said police believed the suspect was another student who used a female student to date. This situation puts you and your editorial team in a very familiar win-win situation. It's your job to inform the campus community, and you want this to minimize gossip and help students focus on getting the truth of the situation.
However, there's a lot you don't know, and you're not sure the police know because you don't get any response. The question your team has to decide is whether to break the story online or wait for more purchases. If you break the story, some questions will remain unanswered. If you wait, misinformation spreads and you feel like you're missing the news purpose of providing information to the community. You are not alone in this puzzle. NPR's ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen recently wrote about how long journalists should reasonably wait for a source's comment before posting a story online. Jensen's article comes after NPR received a May 18 report that accused longtime member of the band Dave Matthews Boyd Tinsley of sexual misconduct litigation. The story was published two hours after it was emailed and received no response from DMB's publicist. According to Jensen's article, it was updated in less than an hour and a half "within minutes" after NPR received Tinsley's statement. Those who complained called the report "shoddy" and "one-sided," according to Jensen. This situation struck a nerve for me as my students were also criticized for reporting what was known at the time in a breaking news event. I wonder if there are best practices beyond our intuition, if we should be teaching policy, or if even professionals have figured this out. I remember journalism being easier, at least in traditional print newsrooms. We don't have to worry about these issues because our deadlines are very late.
We just waited for the news to unfold and laughed at the broadcast reporter "always doing it right". In today's social media, breaking news environment every second, we all understand more about how difficult it is to report accurate information in real time. We want our website to be the place where the more developed news lives, but how long can we really wait? Let's go back to the above scenario. If students use social media to report alerts (received by the entire campus community) and details of known crimes from police reports, is this enough? Most experts would say no, especially when the public expects to find online stories as soon as they see them. I've even heard the 15 minute time frame being joked about. Legitimate news organizations are expected to report online what's happening within 15 minutes of it happening. They want it, they want it now. So are we. This brings us back to the (NPR) original question. How long should journalists reasonably wait for a response in order to be timely and fair? Related to this, how do we prevent sources from withholding comments just to delay reporting?