GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

December 22, 2012

Why Did My Newspaper Do That? Changed times in reporting on 'threats'

Why Did My Newspaper Do That?
Ray Lamont

---- — Some 25-30 years ago, you might not have read or heard much, if anything, about the reported threat that had parents taking their children out of Gloucester High School for the day on Friday.

In fact, back in those days I was working as education reporter at The Berkshire Eagle in my hometown of Pittsfield, and we essentially had an unwritten policy of not publicizing any bomb threats or other such incidents at schools or other city or area town buildings, unless there were extenuating circumstances — including, of course, if the threat ever proved legitimate. Thankfully, I can’t remember one that ever did.

The premise, of course, was that giving any publicity to these types of incidents would often bring the evacuation of a school, or perhaps even a shutdown for the day — no doubt the goal of callers like what the police chief there once described to me as a “very young-sounding voice” on the phone suggesting there was a bomb in his school. Indeed, it was hard to take any such threats seriously in those days — long before we were hit with the hard realities of Columbine and now Sandy Hook.

I recognize there was a context to that policy, but I have always had concerns about not reporting news to readers. All of that has obviously changed dramatically. There may be no more glaring example in our local news coverage changes than in the fact that Friday’s perceived threat is played prominently on our front page today, with a story and photo of the threat at our own high school, and not so coincidentally, an accompanying photo on the city’s bell-ringing memorial service in honor of the 26 victims of the Sandy Hook School shootings, which had occurred at the same hour exactly a week earlier.

Why, you might ask, would we give the GHS threat this level of coverage? Isn’t it feeding into the hands of whomever may have first scrawled a threat on a bathroom wall? Why, you may well ask, would your community’s newspaper do that?

Because, in these increasingly scary times, the idea of a gun threat in a school legitimately raises a number of safety concerns — and that’s news. But there are other factors as well.

We often hear of how social media has changed our lives — for both the better, and the worse — and Friday’s threat provided a classic example of how. In the supposed “good ol’ days” in Pittsfield, while students, teachers and many parents would have learned of a called-in bomb threat, the community at large might not, if it were not reported in The Eagle or on our local radio stations.

That’s hardly the case today. Friday, local blogs were awash within minutes with rumors of the threat, as were students and other Twitter feeds and postings on Facebook. In that vein, we saw it as our duty to post Breaking News on the incident on our gloucestertimes.com site — not just to let our readers know what was happening, but to hopefully ease some parents’ and other residents’ minds by emphasizing that no sign of a gun had been found, and to make it clear that school was remaining in session, though a number of parents were taking their kids out due to safety concerns.

At the same time, reporter Marjorie Nesin, who had gone to the school, posted a similar story on our Facebook page to again get out the verified information. And I sent a text message to the more than 1,000 Gloucester readers who subscribe to our free text-alert service, letting them know about the incident and to steer them to the online story at gloucestertimes.com.

Will this kind of coverage catch the eye of some who might then be spurred to make a similar threat, or – heaven forbid — carry out an incident of violence? We certainly hope not.

But even recognizing that possibility – and everyone should know that all threats will be taken very seriously these days – our first duty is to let you know about a potential public safety incident that, even as a threat, drew a police and school response Friday morning.

As always, let me know that you think.

Questions? Comments? Is there a topic you’d like to see addressed in a future column? Contact Times editor Ray Lamont at 978-283-7000, x3438, or at rlamont@gloucestertimes.com.