By Dan Pool, editor
The internet caused the first big change in the way papers like the Progress address news coverage. For breaking news, you will find it on our website, which means we operate more like a daily paper in some situations.
The second big change, still underway, is a growing portion of the population who get instant updates on their cell phones. To borrow a phrase from columnist Thomas Friedman, it was when we went from “connected to hyperconnected.” As I told a journalism class at Reinhardt College last year, this means our deadline is always five minutes from now.
Saturday we had a picture of the old Bargain Barn fire on our Facebook page before the first drop of water was sprayed. We took great care to make sure the caption left no room for doubt that it was the old as opposed to the current operation of one of our county’s largest retailers. We try to think about things like that to avoid a potential widespread miscommunication. In some cases we’ll be a little vague, “trailer fire in the Refuge /South Woods area,” but so far we haven’t been wrong. If we report through any of our print, online, social media that something is happening, you can be confident the gist of it is right.
There are two particular cases where this speed of spreading information leaves us a little flummoxed as to the best approach to take.
First is with car crashes. We report these regularly on our Facebook page mainly with the intent of letting motorists know there may be a delay on certain roads or to use caution when approaching an area– as was the case on Christmas Eve when we posted that a wreck had occurred in the very dark curves of Cove Road. We take an approach like morning television news – giving updates but not many details.
For those of you wondering how people see our online reports in time to change routes: this is the type of stuff those people always peering at their telephones are looking at – and, yes, it does occur while some folks are behind the wheel.
But the problem we run into with wreck coverage is inevitably we get an instant reply asking us for details on the cars (including in some cases tag numbers), the drivers’ conditions and occasional who we think was at fault.
We don’t answer these for the simple reason, we often can’t tell. We don’t wander around the wreck site, get in the way or ask questions with the EMS, police, sheriff, fire fighters and GSP officers who are understandably quite busy.
I understand that anxious relatives want to know if one of the cars was a loved one’s vehicle. But for practical purposes, it’s almost impossible to sort through what happened at a big wreck while standing on the sidelines. Many years ago, I reported on a wreck in front of a local eatery and two old-timers said they had seen it all and gave a good account, which I reported mixed in with the official version, with the caveat “witnesses described” for their part of it. The problem was the wreck those guys saw must have occurred in an alternate universe.
Witnesses to any traumatic scenes may not be reliable and it takes time after everything has cooled down to piece together what has happened.
The other place we still question the best protocol is with school incidents. When we put up breaking news, such as the bomb threat Friday or the sexual assault case at PCMS last year, half the comments are we should have reported it earlier and half the comments are we reported it too early.
Some people want updates as they happen while others think parents should be notified before we put it out.
Particularly with the bomb threat, we understand why law enforcement delays reporting.
If you have 600 students on a campus and need to sort out details, you don’t want to add 300 panicked parents to the mix. The Jasper Police Chief told us at a school in Atlanta after a live report of shots fired was released, police had to use riot control tactics to keep the campus secure from excited parents -- even after it was clearly reported that no one had been injured.
We will continue to work with law enforcement and school officials to use the ability to communicate news instantly to help with emergency events. We don’t want to add to the pressure of an already heated event.
As to delaying further, this is not practical as often parents miss the message (whether by letter or call) entirely. We have also been thanked quite a few times for putting out this news promptly by parents who said they wouldn’t have known otherwise. We value this kind of input and suggestions.