A digital alert of shots fired in a university building. A campus on lockdown as media scramble to find out what happened. Social media and blogs blowing up with unconfirmed reports about a shooter and a victim. An unfortunately all-too-familiar scenario these days in American higher education and media.
That’s what went down Thursday at the University of South Carolina—my alma mater, incidentally—and the details are still coming in about why a woman gunned down her ex-husband, a popular public health professor, in an office at his work. There will be much to examine in the aftermath of yet another killing on a college campus, but early debate focused on how one media outlet reported on the apparent murder-suicide.
That’s a tweet from Andy Paras, the social media editor of the Charleston Post and Courier, who writes a column about social media for his paper and occasional analysis about the journalism business for Muckrack.
The State is the daily newspaper in Columbia, SC, where the shooting happened, and the paper did use unnamed sources to identify the victim within hours of the shooting. In doing so, the paper leapfrogged the county coroner, who hadn’t yet officially released the names of the deceased. This is how the newspaper initially attributed its reporting:
The names of the two people who died have not been disclosed officially … But sources told The State newspaper that Raja Fayad was shot and killed.
That a media outlet would go with this information before official on-the-record confirmation might not even rise to the level of public debate in some journalism communities—so long as it gets the facts right. (Remember NPR and Gabby Giffords?) And to its credit, the paper did get it right. The university’s president would also later identify the slain professor in a tweet the next morning, before the coroner’s official announcement.
But Paras was hardly the only journalist with South Carolina ties to raise an eyebrow at The State’s decision. An anchor for Columbia TV station WIS and a reporter for a hyperlocal site both wrote on Twitter that they would not publish names before authorities released them. The Daily Gamecock student paper ran a letter from the editor saying the same. Even Noelle Phillips, former cops reporter for The State, wrote on Facebook that she was “surprised” by what she called a “bold move” for the paper.
There was some debate inside the newsroom too, acknowledged Mark Lett, The State’s editor.
“We all sought balance and urgency in working to provide accurate information to address the questions and anxiety of students, faculty and relatives,” Lett said in an email. “We relied upon solid sourcing, primary reporting and internal discussion and deliberations. In the end, we provided reliable information while setting aside other pieces of information that did not meet our standards for publication.”
The decision to publish was criticized by the county’s longtime coroner, Gary Watts, who said he couldn’t immediately recall a prior instance where a local paper had run with the name of a murder victim before he’d confirmed it. Watts said he wanted to make sure he was able to contact the victim’s immediate family—a concern also raised by some journalists—and he didn’t know how the paper had properly verified who had been killed. Even the state police agency, which was on scene investigating the deaths, defers to the county coroner in South Carolina when it comes to releasing names of those who died, its spokesman Thom Berry told me.
“There’s just too many factors there in my opinion to release it without proper documentation and being authenticated by someone that’s in a position to do that,” Watts said. “It really upset me.”
I can understand the uneasiness about The State’s decision. In journalism school I recall being taught, somewhat morbidly, not to write that someone had died before the coroner made a pronouncement even if we saw a head 10 feet from a body.
But things have changed dramatically since the times when newspapers might hold such information for the next day’s press run—and they’ve changed a lot even since I was in j-school, not that long ago. The reality today is that when public tragedies like school shootings happen, much of the information that comes out first will be from non-journalists on social media, which puts pressure on newsrooms—and public officials—to move quicker. In this case, the professor’s name was circulating widely on social media, and the much-trafficked South Carolina politics-gossip site FitsNews is taking credit for being “the first outlet to identify the victim”—before The State.
So, did The State make the right call?
“Ethics is about right and wrong, but there can be multiple rights and multiple wrongs,” says Bob Steele, an affiliate of Poynter Institute and the Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values. “In a situation like this—a very public arena, a shooting, a death—there’s a pretty strong reason why you want to name the victim sooner rather than later. But I would want an identifiable source.”
The State didn’t have that.
Still, while it’s hard to say what I would do in the same situation, I lean toward The State’s side of this debate. If I’m a reporter outside a school building, and there are people around wondering if it’s their family member dead on the floor, and I know who it is—know 100 percent—I’d probably push to publish. Not out of idle curiosity, or just to be first. But because these days people are getting their information somewhere, and the news organization has an obligation to understand that and be a trusted voice in a noisy, fast-moving public conversation.
That said, I think I’d owe it to readers to tell them a little more than The State did about how I know my source is solid—whether it’s law enforcement, university sources, or the victim’s family. Otherwise, no matter how solid the information, there’s a potential it could read like hearsay—whether it’s on a printed newspaper page, a blog, or your smartphone’s social feed.