This Friday, after yet another consecutive all-nighter in The Gatepost office on deadline night, we got the news. Well, first, we heard the deep baritone of several fire engines, then had our suspicions confirmed with an emergency text message alert from the school: Fire. A real one. In a res hall.
We left class, given special permission to cover the breaking news, perhaps the most serious of its kind in my four years at university. My staff and I began tweeting everything – the number of fire engines on site (an astounding five), the first-hand accounts of students hanging out around the roped-off area where fire officials were doing their work, a description of gallons and gallons of ashy water streaming out a sixth-floor window.
Everything happened very quickly. Within 15 minutes of the original emergency notification, the fire was out, fire officials were rolling up their hoses and sullen, long-faced students were grappling with the possibility that something terrible had happened in their rooms. The big question, the one on everyone’s mind, was what the hell, exactly, was going on? The handful of updates from the administration were bland and general, and a sense of frustration had begun to develop around us. So, by my idealistic, bleary eyed assessment, we, the student reporters, had a chance to be superheroes – the bringers of information in the midst of what was an obvious dearth of it.
One of those bits of information, which we got from the school’s vice president, was the number of the room in which the fire originated, and an assurance that the fire was restricted to that room and nowhere else. To me, the room number was news – crucial news, and not just because it had been given to us by a top administrator. To every resident of North Hall (the dorm in question), North was a Schrodinger’s box, their rooms existing in a state of both charred destruction and all-clear cleanliness. So we tweeted about it.
Everything seemed to be going well – the local daily paper was RTing us, using us as a by-the-minute source of what was happening on the ground. Other students were RTing us, or spreading the word by mouth to those nearby.
But that’s when all hell broke loose.
We came to find out that, although we had been given the room number, the students who lived in the room hadn’t. As a result, some of them were put in the incredibly unfortunate position of having to find out via social media about their room catching on fire. Understandably, they were pissed, and said so, repeatedly, on Twitter. Texts were sent, complaints were lodged and the credibility of the newspaper came into question. The information superheroes became the villains.
So, if I could go back and cover the fire again, would I still have tweeted the room number? Yes, but not without asking about it first. If I could do it over, I would have asked the administrator whether the students had been informed, and, had the answer been “no,” I would have waited. Simple as that. News is news, yes, but treating news sensitively is crucial. We want to bring students the information they need as quickly and as accurately as possible, but we also don’t want to upset, anger or annoy them unnecessarily, and ultimately, we don’t want to lose them as readers. Following up with that all-important second question – let’s call it the “emotional context” question – is essential.
Take, for example, the controversy at Bridgewater State University – another public in Massachusetts and “sister college” to FSU. Editors at the BSU student newspaper The Comment received very public backlash from their readership for publishing the name of a student who spoke at a “Take Back the Night” rally about her experience being sexually assaulted. The student gave her name at a public event, and The Comment ran with it. When several students got up in arms about their decision to do so, and the BSU president stepped into the fray, threatening to punish the paper’s editors and faculty advisor, the story became national news. The Student Press Law Center ended up sending a letter to the president, and the Boston Globe even ran an editorial in support of the paper.
While I stand by The Comment’s editors and their right to print the student’s name, the controversy could have been avoided if the journalists had asked the “emotional context” question. Did that student, the one who spoke so bravely about her experiences, realize that her name would appear in then newspaper? Was she comfortable with being named as a victim of a sexual assault? If the answer was “no,” the editors should have backed down. But the question wasn’t asked, so no answer could have been given.
We now have a policy about similar incidents – namely, we, as reporters, have an obligation to find out if the victims of crimes are comfortable being named, even in public settings. And, in an incident this year which involved the death of a student, we knew not to print the person’s name until an official announcement could be made. But we didn’t have one about specific information in non-lethal tragedies like on-campus fires. We sure do now.
Note: We decided not to print the room number in our news article about the incident. For two reasons. First, after the outcry about us tweeting it, there’s no need to stir the pot anymore by publishing it in print. But the second, much more significant reason is that, now that the chaos has passed, the room number isn’t useful anymore. Students don’t need to know exactly which room was the source of the fire. The room number is no longer news, as it was that friday afternoon, so there is no need to publish it.