Never in a hurry to ‘be first’ with bad information

Nov. 2, 2019 — Before becoming a journalist some 21 years ago, I was a chef for 10 years working in Houston, Atlanta and eventually Portland. I had a simple mantra I repeated in every restaurant, from line cook to server:

Never be in a hurry to serve bad food.

As a journalist and editor, it’s a mantra that I have applied to reporting the news, especially when it involves sensitive, controversial or investigative stories within our community.

In an age where media outlets are constantly competing to “be first” to break news, there is a pattern of reporting that has evolved making incomplete, unverified or single-sourced reporting acceptable in order to “be first.”

Some of this comes from the pressure within the media industry itself in an era of instant information and access; some of it comes from pressure outside the industry due to social media’s ability to spread speculation, rumor and assumption like wildfire through community circles.

Never be in a hurry to serve bad food — or in the case of good journalism, inaccurate or incomplete information.

In a front-page story that was published this past Wednesday in the Cottage Grove Sentinel, where I am also editor, we reported on the terrible broomstick hazing incident that occurred in a Cottage Grove High School locker room.

Sentinel reporters had been working on the story since late September, talking with people on and off the record; contacting local police as well as the district attorney’s office; working to obtain official documentation, reports and verification; and cross referencing our information to insure that we could offer a comprehensive report that had been vetted through multiple sources.

We were in no hurry to “be first” in offering incomplete or unverified information to the community.

Understandably, some community members were frustrated with the lack of coverage in The Sentinel once larger news outlets such as KEZI and The Register-Guard began reporting information provided by anonymous sources.

We took some lumps on social media but were determined to approach our gathering of information — and eventual reporting — with objectivety and thoroughness so that the community had a solid and accurate foundation of information moving forward rather than half-truths and speculation.

In addition to wanting to provide accurate and credible reporting, journalists at smaller community newspapers also understand how their reporting can have real-life consequences — good or bad — for members of their community, whether it be the local government, schools, business owners, the police department, victims or the accused.

Here in Florence, there is currently an investigation by the school district into an incident involving a student on the “spirit bus” who made a statement online about possible self-harm and potentially harming others during the return trip from last week’s JV football game at La Pine.

According to Siuslaw School Superintendent Andy Grzeskowiak, law enforcement was contacted and made a threat assessment, as is the district’s policy.

As of press time, the investigation had not yet been completed.

In the meantime, there has been a lot of speculation about the incident — from how the school handled it to rumors that players were told not to talk about it — that have been spreading on social media and conveyed through some emails sent to our newsroom.

Once again, we are in no hurry to “be first” in making matters worse for our community or those within it by fueling rumor or speculation with irresponsible reporting.

We hope you understand that our reporting on this incident won’t be about trying to “be first,” but rather to be first in providing you with the information that is factual and complete.


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