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News media, like any other profession, is a competitive field. Every reporter wants to be the first one with the story, the first one to break the news.
Competition is fine, and some would even say it’s healthy. But when it reaches the point of being a journalist’s top priority and causes harm, it needs to stop.
Last week, the Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office sent two press releases to the four newspapers and two television stations that serve Brunswick County.
The first press release said a press conference would be that afternoon to discuss a homicide and the second to discuss a parent with a gun at school. No additional information was given.
The “parent with a gun at a school” turned out to be a parent who was wearing a loaded gun while picking up his child from Shallotte Middle School.
A student saw the gun on the parent Wednesday and the student’s parent called and left a message on SMS Principal Jerry Small’s voice mail. Small did not receive the student’s report until the next morning, but immediately contacted the Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office who took over the case, the parent was arrested that afternoon.
When the press release was sent out, none of this information was public knowledge. Brunswick County Schools Superintendent Katie McGee said the schools did not even know the details of the arrest, as the sheriff’s department took control immediately.
In the times of Virginia Tech and Columbine, guns at schools should never be taken lightly and should be treated with the utmost caution and safety.
One of the local media outlets posted a brief on its Web site, which said “The Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office has called a press conference at 2 p.m. today on a homicide and a parent at a school with a gun.”
Did parents see this posting? Did parents wonder which school it was, when it happened, and if their child or children were OK?
Is being the first to “break the news” of the press conference worth the worry, anxiety and confusion the parents reading the brief might have felt? Definitely not.
A journalist’s job is to inform the public of news, but one should never compromise his/her ethics while doing so.
At the press conference, the sheriff explained the situation, handed out a hard copy of the incident report and allowed reporters to ask questions. That night, a different news outlet incorrectly reported the date of the incident and arrest, leaving three parents to make personal visits to Small—two who called himand one who phoned.
McGee said about half of the parents were irate, thinking the school system was trying to cover up the incident.
Once Small explained the date was incorrectly reported, the parents seemed satisfied, McGee said.
Everyone makes mistakes in their career and reports incorrect information. To not correct the mistake, which may have misled the readers who get the news a few days late, is unprofessional and in this case, irresponsible.
With a handful of news media outlets serving one community, we all need to report the same, complete, accurate information. If we don’t, we only cause more confusion to the community.
With situations as serious as a gun on school property, journalists need to remember their first priority—to gather and present the entire truth.
Nowhere in Journalism 101 do you learn facts can be compromised for competition’s sake.