I covered my first breaking news story yesterday.
I won’t lie, I am probably a bit disproportionately excited about this, but I’ve decided to be okay with that.
Thursday afternoon, I went to the newsroom to work on coming up with some story pitches. Personally, I feel like my weakest area right now is idea generation, as I am still trying to get my head around everything my beat entails and really honing my ability to look for stories. Things were pretty calm, and I was comfortably hovering over my computer and my notebook, looking for anything that might be interesting enough to write about.
I didn’t really have time, though, because I guess sometimes interesting things just get thrown at you.
We got word that Grant Elementary School had gone into lockdown, and since I wasn’t doing much, I got asked to help out. My first step was getting in touch with the public information office for the district to confirm. No luck. Honestly, she was probably taking about a million calls right then, considering there was a school in lockdown. So I went to the school and managed to get a confirmation from the secretary. Unfortunately, I think I might have flustered her a bit, because she was probably trying to deal with parents calling off the hook and suddenly had to talk to this nosy reporter who wanted to figure out what was going on.
The editor on duty asked if I had a car so I could go to the school. Unfortunately, my car was on the other side of campus. Fortunately, a classmate on GA shift was able to go, and I got to sit by the phones and scour the internet for any information I could find. I quickly got in touch with the district’s public information office to confirm the lockdown, but little else. Honestly, it was a bit confusing, because we were getting different stories about what was actually happening. We were reading and hearing everything from someone coming into a trailer and threatening people to someone just being on campus who shouldn’t have been. The most we could confirm was a “suspicious person” being seen on campus and that the police were investigating.
So we put up what we knew. And we waited.
Fortunately, the lockdown lasted less than an hour. As details disseminated, we got word from the district, a Facebook post from the police department and a letter my fellow reporter got that was sent home to parents at the school. It turned out that what had happened was some kind of incident between two people that ended with one chasing the other onto school grounds and yelling for someone to call 911. My peer and I used the documents we had, got in touch with the police spokeswoman and managed to get a quick story together within a couple of hours. I’ll be honest, it was kind of a rush, figuring out things as they happened, trying to figure out what we actually did and didn’t know and what we could and couldn’t publish.
I think probably the most important thing I learned was the importance of confirmation and getting a story straight. We heard so many rumors when the story first broke, and we really didn’t know what was going on except that a school was locked down. Different news sources were reporting different stories, and we had to wait to get in touch with official sources before we could say or do anything.
I’m actually really glad we did this. I can only imagine how we might have played into public response if we had reported something inaccurate. What if we had made it sound like there was some kind of danger disproportionate to what there really was? That would have been a sticky mess to clean up.
But we waited. Not so long that we weren’t getting the news out, but long enough to make sure we got our facts straight. And I think that made our coverage much better, much more accurate. It’s crazy and a little scary to think about how quickly stories can spread and change and become so far from the truth. It makes me realize how important it is not to get ahead of myself when I report, how important it is to wait and get the real facts, to verify.
I can sort out a lot of other lessons from this like working with another person, covering news as it breaks, reporting at a quick pace, confirming reports and information. But when I really think about it, I know the biggest thing I took from that story was the realization of how important it is to work neither to fast nor too slow, to get people the information they need, and the information that is true.