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You wake up to a message from your university’s emergency alert system telling you there was an attempted sexual assault on campus overnight. It’s a message no student wants to receive because of the questions and emotions that come with such an alert. For you, a student journalist, there is another layer of emotion and an adrenaline rush that comes with the information. It’s time for you to start reporting an important story for your campus community.

You head to the newsroom as quickly as possible, messaging other editors and making calls along the way. The university’s police dispatcher tells you the police chief is out of the office today at training, and he’s the only person who can talk to you about the “incident.” You know this doesn’t mesh with state open records laws, but decide it’s useless to argue with her. You call the chief on his cell phone, which he gave you for situations just like this. He tells you that he doesn’t know much about the “incident” because he wasn’t on campus, but he’ll email you the police report, which includes everything he knows. He gives you a quote about “safety being the No. 1 priority on campus,” then tells you that he won’t be available much today, but he’s happy to answer any additional questions you have when he is back in the office tomorrow.

The police report is in your inbox when you arrive in the newsroom. It gives basic information. A female student was grabbed by an unknown male while she was walking back to her dorm from the library. The man commented about sexually assaulting her while she struggled to break free. Thankfully, the woman was able to get away and run to the nearest emergency phone to call police. The report gives time, a general location, a super vague description of the suspect, and tells you only the woman’s age and that she is a student.

You have a lot of questions. Where exactly did this happen on campus? Was the student alone? How long did it take police to respond? Do police think the man was a student? What happened after the woman reported the crime? Was there a campus search or any notification other than the early warning text? What are campus police doing now? What should students do to protect themselves?

It seems you have more questions than answers. You try to call the police chief again, hoping you can get in a few quick follow-up questions. Your call goes straight to voicemail. He’s good about calling you back, but who knows when that will happen. In the meantime, the campus rumor mill is going crazy and the alert is all anyone is talking about, in person and on social media. Some campus know-it-alls are even saying that police think the suspect is another student who used the date the female student.

The situation puts you and your editorial team in an all-too-familiar no-win situation. It’s your job to inform the campus community, which you also hope will minimize gossip and help students focus on the truth that is known about the situation. However, there’s still a lot you don’t know, and you aren’t sure if the police know it or not because you’re getting no response. The question your team must decide is whether to break the story online or wait for more sourcing. If you break the story, some questions will remain unanswered. If you wait, misinformation will spread and you’ll feel like you’re neglecting your journalistic purpose to provide information to your community.

You’re not alone in the conundrum.

NPR’s ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen recently wrote about the question of how long journalists should reasonably wait for a comment from a source before posting a story online. Jensen’s piece came after NPR received complaints about a May 18 report about a lawsuit alleging sexual misconduct by Boyd Tinsley, a long-time member of the Dave Mathews Band. The story was published two hours after emailing and receiving no response from DMB publicists. It was updated less than an hour an a half later “within minutes” of NPR receiving a statement from Tinsley, according to Jensen’s piece. Those who complained called the report “shoddy” and “one-sided,” according to Jensen.

The situation struck a nerve with me because my students too have been criticized when reporting what is known at the time during breaking news situations. I wondered if there are best practices aside from our instincts, if we should teach policies and if even the pros have this figured out.

I remember when news was easier, at least in traditional print newsrooms. We didn’t have to worry about such issues because we had late deadlines. We just waited for the news to unfold and mocked broadcast journalists for “never getting it right.” In today’s social media, minute-by-minute breaking news environment, we understand a lot better how difficult it can be to report accurate information in real time. We expect our websites to be the place where more developed news lives, but how long can we really wait?

Let’s go back to the scenario above. If the students used social media to report on the alert (which the entire campus community received) and the known details of the crime from the police report, is that enough? Most experts would say no, especially when the public expects to find a web story as soon as they look. I’ve even heard the timeframe of 15 minutes bantered about. In that people expect a legitimate news agency to report online about a news happening within 15 minutes of it breaking. They want it right and they want it now. So do we.

This brings us back to our (NPR’s) original question. How long should journalists reasonably wait for a response in order to be timely and fair? In relation to this, how do we keep sources from withholding comment simply to delay reporting?

Factors to consider, in no particular order, include:

  • How public is the person the story is about? The more public the subject, the more readily a comment should be expected. Therefore, it is acceptable to run a story saying a public person was “unavailable at such-and-such time to comment,” updating the story when/if a comment is received.
  • How important is the news? In the above attempted sexual assault scenario, we’re talking about a health, safety or welfare issue. In situations such as this, information that can be verified should be reported as soon as possible with explanations about availability. These stories also should be updated as soon as more information becomes available. Updates should be clearly labeled as such.
  • How sound is the information that’s available? This is the age old question of whether it’s important to be first or right. I claim this as a false dichotomy. Don’t choose. Be both. Isn’t that a utopian idea? If you are put in a situation where you have to choose between being first and being right, always choose accuracy. Guard your credibility. If you don’t have information from a source you feel confident in, wait to publish until you do.
  • Is the information already “out there?” If other news sources also are publishing the information without official comments, you may feel more confident in doing so as well. I’m not a huge fan of following other sources, but you also can’t be accused of somehow protecting certain people or withholding information from your audience. In the attempted sexual assault scenario, the campus community already received an alert about the crime. They’re also already discussing it. In this situation, you’re assisting by providing accurate information to help quell the gossip.
  • Should someone be available to release the information? In the attempted sexual assault scenario, there should be someone on duty at all times to release information about a crime. It appears the department is designating the police chief, although he is unavailable. In that scenario, this perhaps becomes a bigger story. I would not advise waiting for publication when information is required by law to be available. When you receive the mandated information, the police report in the above scenario, report what you know at the time, stating what the chief said, then that he was unavailable [time/date] to answer further questions.
  • Are you being transparent? When information isn’t available that’s obviously missing or when repeated attempts to contact someone are ignored, this needs to be included in the story. Don’t give the reader a story full of unexplained holes. The public deserves to know who you contacted, when you contacted them and the response to that contact. Be fair in these explanations. If you called the president as you were hitting “publish,” the reader needs to know that he was unavailable for comment at the time of publication. Consider reading this post where Frank LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information and senior legal fellow for the Student Press Law Center, gives advice on how to use transparency in reporting to build credibility.

Like in most ethical situations, it’s important for you and your team to recognize that you are making an ethical decision, to discuss the factors involved, to understand why you’re making the decision you’re making, and to be able to defend that decision, if necessary.

In cases of breaking news it’s also important to see the key factor—breaking news develops. This means, regardless of what you post and where you post it, disseminating initial information doesn’t mean you’re done. You have to continue reaching out to sources and following the story as it comes to fruition.