Breaking down breaking news
It was one week ago when a third-year logistics management student at Ohio State University drove a car into a crowd of students gathered for a fire drill before getting out of the vehicle and attacking others with a butcher knife.
The Lantern, Ohio State’s student-run newspaper, quickly started covering the breaking story and had nearly 20 articles posted about the incident by the following night. Campus Editor Nick Roll (NR) and Assistant Campus Editor Sam Harris (SH) took part in reporting the story. Below, they share their experiences as they balanced being concerned students along with competing with professional journalists to get accurate, timely information.
Where were you when you first heard about this week’s incident and what was your first reaction?
NR: I was sitting in a Dunkin Donuts right across from campus. When I got the text, I packed up my computer, grabbed my backpack and hustled to the scene, or as close as I could get to it, which ended up being about a block away. My first thought was that I had to be there — I knew that wasn’t going to be my mom’s first thought, I knew she wouldn’t be happy, but as a journalist, I had to be there.
SH: On Mondays, I don’t have class and normally sleep in, so I was in my dorm, asleep, when my roommate woke me up and informed me of the situation. At that point, details were very vague and we thought there was an active shooter on campus. It didn’t really feel real at first, but when my phone started blowing up with people asking if I was somewhere safe, the severity of the situation began to sink in.
Who from the staff either heard about the situation first or started reporting first and what was that experience like?
NR: I met up with three other members of the staff at the police line blocking off the area around the scene of the incident. We all met by chance — people heard where the incident was and we all had the same thought. From there, our staff GroupMe, as well as ad-hoc, more targeted group chats, were our main points of communication. Between those, and phone calls, we organized pretty well. I took charge of the Twitter, but we also had reporters in another area of campus, where police suspected a second shooter (at that time, we still believed it was an active shooter). There were a few tweets from others on staff that weren’t quite my favorite — too loosely based, not from official sources — but it was nothing that I lost sleep over. I made it clear in the GroupMe if a tweet wasn’t up to my standards. We filed updates for the website from the sidewalk, using a nearby building’s wifi, and it was on a Google Doc that everyone could access and edit.
SH: I have to confess to being somewhat out of the loop as my building went into lockdown and so I couldn’t leave or really be of much use at the time. Our sports team was actually the first people there and so it was frustrating in that I couldn’t help them very much. I made sure to edit things as they came in, but really I just felt useless, I wanted to be there, helping my team.
Did you have a plan in place among your staff should breaking news like this happen? If not, are you thinking of having that discussion now for the future?
NR: We have a pretty active GroupMe. We have a list with everyone’s phone numbers. We all recognize the value of covering breaking news, and doing it quickly and accurately. I don’t think we have a “plan,” per se. We do make special lists when we go on breaks (Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc.) of which people are in town, and what their contact info is. That way, if there’s something breaking in the middle of December, we know who can get to the scene and who can cover remotely. With the Internet, covering remotely is incredibly effective. We had staff all over the country this summer — myself in D.C. — and we were still filing multiple stories per week. But having people on the scene is still crucial.
SH: I mean, we have plans in place for breaking news but I think that an event like this kind of shatters even the best laid plans.
What was the contact like among staff during the lockdown? Was there a plan set for who was doing what?
NR: We have a GroupMe, and even though it’s mostly for coordinating potlucks, its basis is for covering breaking news. As it developed, we had multiple people tweeting. I was doing police updates from my scene, other reporters were doing updates from the second scene. Website updates were done by myself and another reporter who was with me at the scene, but by the time the day was over, we had added a bunch of names to the byline.
SH: It was really just all hands on deck. We had GroupMe discussions going, with everyone trying to confirm details from wherever they were at. We were scattered physically, but we stayed in communication, which I think really helped in terms of getting coverage out there.
Often times, it’s said that the local (pro or college) news outlets shine in these situations compared to national outlets who aren’t as familiar with the school/area/city. Did you find you had an advantage over other outlets? In other words, were there people you knew to contact, ways to report, etc. that others didn’t?
NR: We should be the best outlet for information at Ohio State. It’s our campus. There’s no reason anyone should cover it better than us. That’s not me being aggressive, it’s just that this is our backyard. It’s our job to be the best in our area. We know what the halls are called. We know where things are located. We have existing relationships with University Police and OSU spokesmen — most importantly, we have a huge social network once you add up all of the friends and mutual friends and acquaintances among our staff. We know the people on the ground. I think our advantage comes from the fact that any college is like a small town, and we eat, sleep and breathe Ohio State.
SH: I think our advantage wasn’t necessarily that we were on our home turf, but that we had a stake in the game. This is our home, our campus, and our friends who had been impacted by this event. We put everything into our coverage because we wanted our fellow students to get clear and accurate information as to what was going on. I think our advantage is that we cared.
What’s been the overall feedback you all received on your reporting?
NR: Mostly positive, especially from other outlets. And it has meant a lot — whether from other professionals, readers, or other college outlets. The only people mad at us are the ones who are mad we aren’t calling it “radical Islamic terrorism.” Look, I can’t call it that until the FBI calls it that. I asked them at the press conference if they were calling it terrorism, and they said no. Oh, and for what it’s worth, not one reporter at the press conference asked about any investigation into the attacker’s mental health. Go figure.
SH: Generally I think feedback was positive. I had a few professors comment that they had followed the Lantern closely during the incident and that they thought our coverage was well done.
Was there something that you felt you should have done differently in your reporting?
NR: If we had more man power, we would have been out and about at his former community college, in his neighborhood, knocking on doors, etc. to find out more about him. Nothing has really come from the stories on who he was yet, so it’s not something I’m losing sleep over. We’ve been doing great work on the campus front, and in our follow-up stories. That’s not meant to sound self-aggrandizing — I’m just really proud of my staff.
SH: I mean I wish I hadn’t been so isolated in lockdown, but looking back there’s not much I could have done there.
What’s one piece of advice you would give other student journalists if they had to report on a big breaking story?
NR: Breaking news is actually super easy. You write what you know. And you don’t know a lot. So you don’t write a lot. Just stick to the facts, like you would in any other situation. It’s like any other reporting — if you report it, you better be ready to stand behind every last word. Additionally, we’ve been doing crazy amounts of full-length follow-up stories. Those stories, which round up all the facts and present them in full context, or flesh out other details and turn them into full stories, are critical in the hours and days after the attack. You have to have something other than the original breaking report.
SH: I don’t know if there’s really any advice that can prepare you for something like this. I guess just keep in mind that it isn’t about you; it’s about the students that read the paper and expect real and relevant information. You’re not there for the glory or to see your name put up somewhere, you’re there because you owe it to your fellow students.