When big is not better

Playing down a story for the community good

It’s a good story — a great story, as a matter of fact. But would playing it big be responsible journalism?

By Karen Schmidt

Karen Schmidt is assistant regional editor for the Waterbury (CT) Republican-American.

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 2, no. 2 (May 1990), p. 3.

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.

 

On January 30, 1989, two weeks after a gunman killed five children and wounded 29 in a schoolyard in Stockton, California, a letter arrived at an elementary school in Watertown, Connecticut.

“We will start shooting the little pigs on the schoolyard real soon,” read the crudely-typed note in part. “We will start with the little sluts so they can’t breed. We will not stop until they are all dead.”

During my regular rounds covering Watertown the next day for the Waterbury Republican, my usual police department contact showed me the letter and a similar one that had arrived at a resident’s home on Saturday. He told me police were stepping up school security, and the school superintendent was sending a letter home that day with every child telling parents about the threats.

I agreed with the cops that this was no kid playing a prank. The ugly tone of the letters seemed to reveal a disturbed adult, vicious toward women and Catholics and very aware of publicity. “We hope to hell you think this is a joke . . . Do not think you can cover this up,” it read. “We have started notifing (sic) your people. Thanks for putting their names all over everything.”

The other letter and a third that turned up the next day were aimed at a Catholic school down the street. “Dear Catholic Pig: We will start shooting the children on the Magdalen schoolyard real soon — Ladies First,” it read.

The question was not whether to cover it, but how. It was an explosive story, and as the only daily reporter regularly covering the town, I was pretty sure I had it first. Everyone in town would know in a few hours once the children brought the superintendent’s letter home.

But the thought of a huge outside headline in tomorrow morning’s paper made me uneasy. Here was a sick person who craved attention. Media coverage of the Stockton shooting had probably given him the idea. Would the newspaper become an accomplice if we overplayed the story?

How would a splashy story affect the more than 3,000 children?

In addition, as the superintendent pointed out as he urged me to play down the story, he had informed every parent in the district. Everyone who needed to know, knew, he said. In fact, the superintendent’s letter was a double-edged sword: Once the story was out, why tread carefully?

I returned to the office and told the state news editor, Charles Dixon. His immediate reaction: Play it small. Get it on the record, but do nothing to encourage hysteria. In a five-minute discussion at the start of a regular planning meeting, he asked the other editors if anyone disagreed with his decision to give the incident the bare minimum of coverage.

They agreed the paper had to mention the incident. But any more than minimum attention could breed panic or, worse, encourage the letter writer.

After considering who could benefit from playing the story big, they decided it was in everyone’s best interest to keep it inside.

A short time later, I was on the phone with the superintendent. His relief that we were downplaying the story made me think we must be doing something wrong to make a source so happy. Then he told me WTNH-TV, the local ABC affiliate, had just sent out a crew.

I told Dixon. After just a moment’s thought, he said we should stick to our decision. If they were going to be irresponsible, it did not mean we had to be.

I wrote my four-paragraph story. Channel 8’s 6 p.m. report did not mention the threats. At about 10 p.m., a friend called to tell me the station was promoting the story for the 11 o’clock news. I told my editor. No change.

The television story made me feel we were doing the right thing. A graphic over the anchor’s shoulder blazoned “Watertown Sniper” over a target riddled with bullet holes. The story quoted frightened parents. I was angry at what I considered sensational coverage, and a little deflated: After all, I had gotten the story first, even if it was handed to me.

My story ran quietly the next day. Follow-ups, though written longer and played a little harder, continued in the same tone, dealing mostly with school security and reactions from parents and children.

I never quoted the notes, though other print and broadcast media used some of the milder phrases like “shooting the little pigs.” The decision whether to quote the letters was left entirely to me, and in retrospect, I may have been too squeamish. But by the second or third day, the news value would have been all but gone, and the words could renew fear in children reading the paper.

Looking back, I still believe we did the right thing. We can’t determine story play only on how many people will read it; we have a responsibility to consider the consequences.

In this case, excessive play could have only bred more hysteria. That hysteria, in turn, would make more news: I could see people pulling their kids out of school for weeks, or demanding heavy security at the schools. In that scenario, the panic does more harm than the original threat.

In a hostage situation, when ethnic hate is involved, or any time news coverage can incite a publicity-hungry person to do more to draw attention, I think we must err on the side of underplaying. Even if the competition gets a flashier story.

The Watertown letter-threat case remains unsolved.

 

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