Digital Deadline: Case Study for Thursday, April 22

For our class on Thursday, April 22, we will delve into another multimedia case study: Digital Deadline: The St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Kirkwood Shooting.

The case is part of the Knight Case Studies Initiative at Columbia University‘s Graduate School of Journalism. 90-day access to the case and all its multimedia features costs $5.95.

You can print out a PDF if you’d like, but take advantage of the multimedia elements, such as video and audio interviews with the main characters and links to their bios.

The case study assignment is worth 20 points. The first part, worth 10 points, is to post a brief response (250 words or less) as a comment to this blog entry addressing these two questions:

1. Does STLtoday.com owe its readers as much accurate information as it can provide in real time, even if it means stepping ahead of the police in confirming the names of the shooter and his victims? Why or why not?

2. What information should go in the next day’s Post-Dispatch newspaper?

Your response must be posted by noon on Wednesday, April 21.

The second 10 points will be awarded on the basis of your contributions to the case study discussion in class.

Enjoy the case!

17 thoughts on “Digital Deadline: Case Study for Thursday, April 22

  1. 1) The Web site has to provide as much accurate information as quickly as possible. With a credible eye-witness inside the action, the P-D’s info was the best available. Police are deliberately slow to comment in most cases. They’re not under any obligation to release info right away. It’s likely the police knew the shooter’s identity and the names of the wounded and killed almost immediately. It’s clear the Police were not quick to notify Thornton’s family—Deere was the first to break the news to them. Police officials did notify Karr’s ex-husband about her death, but not until much later. The bottom line is that notifying family members before running a story like this is not the newspaper’s responsibility. That’s up to public officials. In this case, it’s fine to say who was shot and who the shooter was since McNichols confirmed everything, including through others’ eye-witness accounts.

    2) The print product should serve as one version of a series of ongoing publications. Since the status of the victims was not known at press time, you say exactly that. You have already identified the victims and the shooter online, so you include that info with as much background on them as you can. You describe the scene, using McNichols’ account. Finally, you tell readers they can get the latest information on the Web site.

    These days, print is no longer the official record. Not all information can be published on paper—there simply isn’t room. The Web, however, is limitless. People will have to refer to the Web and print from now on the get the full picture.

  2. 1. While I think the website has the responsibility to the public to provide accurate and timely reporting, I think doing so before there is an official report can be risky. Especially in a homicide case, reporting incorrect information could be incredibly devistating to family members of supposed victims. In this case, because the police were slow to report the deaths, I think extra precautions should be taken; they were, in the form of eye-witness reports. Because the reporter had these inside sources (also granting that the names of these sources WERE valid and listed) then I think the website had the right/responsibility to publish them.
    2. I think the print newspaper should obviously use cues from their inside source/early reporting, but I also think they should lend themselves to more official public statements as they are gradually released. If anything, its just another way to ensure their accuracy. In other words, they should count on McNichols’ reporting but they should also be aware of the confirmed reports that are more slow to surface.
    3. I think most would agree that in an increasingly digital world, print journalism is really taking a back seat. This isn’t to say that the accuracy of web journalism should escape the same standards for those in print, but web journalism, when used responsibly, is an effective and far-reaching way for the media to do its job: inform the public.

  3. 1. A newspaper is two things, a business and a news outlet. So really there are two answers for this question. As a business it was not prudent to publish news before it was confirmed by the police because if they had mistaken a victim or the shooter the newspaper could be held responsible for the repercussions. One part that made me think this was when I found out that the reporter recognized the voice of the shooter. Although she said it was a person she knew, she didn’t see the face until later. However, the main function of this web site is for people to get the news. So I think it was important for the newspaper to publish the story. This also helped more people get the information because other newspapers and stations got their information from the website, so they reached a larger audience.
    2. The next day the newspaper should fill in things that the police confirmed. The study says that she didn’t know if he had killed more, or if the people she had seen shot were actually dead. This would be the place to confirm that. If possible they could run photos of the people to show who it was, give it more of a community feel than just-the-facts news. Because Stephen Deere went to Thorton’s house and talked to his brother they could also put what he said into the story, a profile on the shooter. Because that’s what people want to know…WHY!?
    The great part about the internet is that it is so immediate, there’s no ink to dry, nothing to be delivered, just click a button and it’s posted. That helps journalists “break” a story, but also makes us have to be more careful because there’s less (if not no) time to retract a statement. The internet is not the future for journalism, it’s the present. People will go to print to read a feature, but the internet for immediate news.

    –Hanna

  4. As a journalist, of course it is important to remember the basics. Reporting news efficiently, often, and accurately are among the top priorities. I understand the dilemma of being unsure which facts to use, but if we resort back to our basic ethical principles, I think the answer is very clear.
    I have always said that I would never ask someone something I wouldn’t want my family to be asked. I think it was extremely insensitive for the reporter to camp outside of the hospital asking for names. I have also been very stagnant in my belief that no names should be printed in any crime story until the families have been notified. While it is great for the publication that they happened to have a reporter at the crime scene with inside information, it would be unethical to print the names of those shot without confirming and then notifying the families. No one wants to learn about a family member being shot through a web story.
    I think the alternative should have been reporting on the eye witnesses testimony of the number of people who were confirmed to have been shot. Because the one reporter took the initiative to go to the shooter’s home and explain to the family the incident and get their consent to run the story, it was acceptable to release the shooter’s name.
    As for making the print and web stories different, I think that people want their news and they want updates when they are completely accurate. Like they mentioned, some people read print and not web, and vice versa. It is ok to have the same information. I think it was a nice element for the web to have the reporter who was a first hand witness write the blog and record the video blog. That definitely set it apart from the print story.
    There is always time to add details to a story once they are confirmed. Until everything is positive, don’t run it. And always remember ethical behavior people.

    Kristin Kimball

  5. 1. The STLtoday.com does owe the most recent and pertinent content to its readers–but I do not think that the paper’s Web site should side-step law enforcement and forgo journalistic ethics in releasing victim’s names before their families are notified. This is because a paper’s job is to inform but there are also rules to follow. It is not a media outlet’s duty to inform the families of deceased of their loss. In the case of Councilwoman Karr, I believe that the Web site could have gone ahead and published her name after receiving the call from her ex-husband. This is fine even if the police or hospital hadn’t notified them, as long as they source the information to her ex-husband and sports reporter. The Web site and paper cannot rely on McNichols, because as she admits herself, she was NOT an eyewitness. She just heard things and did not even look behind her as she exited the scene.

    2. The Post-Dispatch should clearly identify the shooter through a profile and the interview conducted with Thornton’s family. I think they should discuss his past with the Kirkwood City Council and his dispute with their claims. They could acquire minutes from previous meetings where Thornton had been present to discuss to nature of his alleged anger. The paper should also publish Councilwoman Karr’s identity and get a statement from her ex-husband. They should acknowledge that at time-of-print the hospital and PD were unable to identify the victims. They could mention that their own freelance reporter was in the room and according to her account the statements matched, however the paper was unwilling to release names, as confirmation that the families had been notified was not known. I think it would be OK to plug their Web site saying the best updates would be found there. The paper could also link this story to any possible other city council shootings that may have happened in other parts of the country.

  6. First, the reporters are torn between being a reporter, knowing the information and informing the public, and a respectable citizen, not being the way that the families find out about the shooting. If you were a family member of a victim, would you rather hear from the news, when thousands of others are hearing as well, that your family member is dead.

    Second, what if they were wrong? What if they announced the names of the “victims,” and that was how the family found out, and then it ended up being wrong. The newspapers credibility is at stake.

    Although, playing devils advocate, they had an inside source: a reporter who is trained to be in tune with details. She is trustworthy, and credible. She is a strong asset, of which, as a business, they should be using. With that, publish the details.

    In conclusion, I feel that they should publish the names. In the online addition, if they kept the story simple and short. Have it written by someone else, and then have his or her eyewitness reporter write a follow up of her experience later. That is a huge selling point for the paper, as no other news organization in the city had an eyewitness. That gives them a strong differentiated story for online and the paper.

  7. Yes, STLtoday.com absolutely does owe its readers as much accurate information it can. I do understand that there is the potential of other news sources getting a step ahead of STLtoday.com, but, hypothetically, if something was reported to be inaccurate, all people are going to be doing is pointing the finger at other people…”Well, they reported that, too…” or “If they reported it, it’s probably OK….” And that just doesn’t make anyone look good. Keeping up a news organization’s credibility is hard enough.
    I also do realize that it’s very important for news organizations to be the first on a break news story– it’s what they strive to do. However, I do think it more important to report what you know is absolutely true, rather than relying on just one person or another news organization when you’re down to the wire, and especially when you’re in a stressful situation like a shooting. Yes, theoretically McNichols was a trained news professional and new what was at stake, but having never been in a situation quite like this, you just aren’t sure how the person will react and what they’re capable of.

    The names of the victims and shooter definitely need to show up in the next day’s Post-Dispatch newspaper, once confirmed, of course. Also, having some kind of profile of McNichols would be a good idea, especially since no other news organization had one of their team members be an eyewitness to the story. It’s something not every one else will possess, and they still get a leg up enough to be proud of the story.

  8. 1. The fact that an STLtoday.com reporter, McNichols, was on the scene, an eyewitness to this big and breaking news story, is every news organization’s dream. McNichols was already in the room, had witnessed the shooter and had seen specific people get shot. STLtoday as a news site does owe the reader accurate information, and since the internet is all about immediacy, it should hypothetically be in real time. The dilemma becomes what to disclose and what information to hold off on for further conformation by family members or police. I agree with Goodman’s decision to release an on-line story with the shooter’s name. He justified it well. 1. the shooter had been confirmed off the record and 2. it is a public service to tell readers he is not on the loose. Also, a criminal has different rights when it comes to the publishing of information.
    What I don’t agree with is releasing names of victims. McNichols was in a state of shock and this type of mindset can lead to errors. What they should have done is tell readers approximately how many people were shot and then wait for more details and conformation from police. Releasing names of victims without contacting family is an ethical boundary that I would not have crossed.

    2. Since they wanted the print story to be different, what I would have put in next day’s Post-Dispatch paper would be a more in-depth, at-the-scenes account of the previous night’s events. Here is where I would elaborate on exactly who got shot, the extent of their injuries, McNichols’ experience as an eye-witness and background on the shooter. By this time, names of victims should be confirmed and family notified, so it is safe to print the information. Giving a detailed account, even if it includes some of the same information, will still read differently than the STLtoday.com news the night before.

  9. I think far to often, news organizations try to get the information out as fast as possible without thinking through the consequences of misrepresenting or having false information.

    There is a definite reason for the police in our community, and it is not only to keep us safe. They inform family members of tragedy, and they are the authorities, or experts, on tragedies and other events in the community. Absolutely no names should be printed without the family members being notified. How would you feel if that was the way you found out about a loved one being shot? Yes, they did have an advantage by having a reporter at the scene, but accuracy and sympathy for the family is most important. I think a lot of times, it’s just about getting the information out there just to get it out there. There was obviously a reason for the police being slow in giving a formal account of the incident with names. In my opinion they wanted the names to be first, but why do that to risk accuracy? To reiterate, the newspaper should only print what the police department confirmed.
    Although the print story should print just the information that is known, using McNichols’ account to the case should be included as well. Even if she was not an “eyewitness” per say, she experienced the incident. That gives their story an advantage.

    A blog where McNichols gives an account of here experience is very affective for the web. It allows for a more personal account of the incident, and that is something I would rather read than a formal article. The website is a place where information can be constantly updated, and it should be used for that. The newspaper should only carry the information that is know for sure. It is not worth risking false information.

    -Hayley Nelson

    1. Hayley’s response actually made me change my mind a little. I originally wrote that, while the online blog should be careful about what they publish without authority confirmation, in light of the tragedy of the situation, I change my mind. I think the website should not have published the names of “victims” without word from the police first. I know it was slow and that the reporter may have had accurate information ready before the police were willing/able to release it, but the families of the victims is the number one concern here. Like Hayley’s hypothetical question posed, how would you feel if an online blog is how you found out your loved one was shot? Even worse, what if the report was wrong?
      I do, however, still think the print paper should use their inside source. She is able to give first hand accounts and has witness testimony, so this strengthens the story.

  10. 1) The web site should definitely provide as much accurate information as possible, but I don’t think they should jump ahead of police too much. Police, besides McNichols, are the reporters’ main way to verify information, so jumping ahead of them leaves too much room to get things wrong. I think the Dispatch definitely made the right decision to name the victims McNichols actually saw get shot, but then not name the others until they could get confirmation. They should not post their inference of who they though the other victims were, because without a way to verify that information, they could just upset the families for no reason. Besides naming the victims, they should not report on the victims’ conditions (dead or injured) until they can get hospital and/or police confirmation because in that case they know that the families have been notified. I think it’s okay to report that the victims have been shot before police or anyone would have notified the families, because that allows critical and important information to reach the families and city. After that, the family deserves to know the condition of their loved ones before the everyone else.

    2) The web should be the breaking news venue (and it was), which means that the next day’s newspaper should go in depth. They interviewed the family, so the newspaper article should focus on the shooter’s motive and why the shooting happened. It only makes sense to me that the web/breaking news information should be that such-and-such happened and the newspaper should delve into the subject. There definitely needs to at least be a paragraph or two to introduce the incident to anyone that may not have read it online, but not much mroe than that.

    -Kathryn Sharkey

  11. 1. STLToday.com does owe its readers as much accurate information as they can provide in the timeliest manner possible. I think because there was a first hand account of a reporter there that they should publish what she know for certain. She knew: the shooter was Charles Lee Thornton, two of the victims were Officer Tom Ballman and Kirkwood Public Works Director Ken Yost and that the shooter was shot. THey could not publish what they did not know for absolute fact, in this case McNichols’ eye whitness account: the total number of victims, whether any of the victims were dead and how many or Thornton’s status. I think it would be ok to report the names of those known to be shot, Yost and Ballman and the shooter Thornton. It is also necessary to report that Thornton was the shooter. As they said, it prevents people from thinking he is at large. In no way should it be implied that they were dead. I think the inferences made after the police announcement about who was dead should not be included because they are not based on hard evidence and fact. Karr’s death could be later reported after the confirmation by her ex-husband. The main importance in the situation was that the site and paper had the scoop, on which others relied so if they got something wrong it fell on them.
    2. The next days paper should include the known deaths: Karr and Thornton. No others were directly named though they could report that 2 officers and 2 other officials were killed. McNichols first hand account would also add to the print story the next day. It could include speculative reasons for the shooting (Thornton’s war against the city) but it would have to be very clear that there was no hard evidence proving what Thornton did it.

  12. O, I forgot, obviously the story should include some facts about the incident, but that is pretty much the “old news” the story should center on the most up to date news, that 6 are dead and the names of two are know.

    1. 1. I do believe that STLtoday.com owes the public timely and accurate information. The problem with this situation is that this was a multiple homicide. Not only that, but the source of information was involved in the attack and could possibly be in shock. Because they had access to so much information they also had a larger responsibility. Whatever they published would be picked up by other media–right or wrong. This reminds me so much of citizen journalism. Just because you have first hand account of an incident doesn’t always mean it is accurate. This is why journalists today in digital media have a greater ethical responsibility. I do not think it is ever a good idea to step ahead of the police when there is a homicide.
      2. I think the next day paper is the place you run the victims names and personal background information. The paper could describe the history of conflict with the shooter and the mayor. The paper still has Mc Nichols’ first hand account that could be told in great detail and add a lot the story. The immediacy of the web is a little frightening.

  13. 1. As I have stated in class I have always been a firm believer in accuracy or quickness of publication. I think that they should only publish the information that they have that has been confirmed. For instance, since they had information based on credible witnesses and fairly quick delivered information from the police they could likely could have published the story with names and been fine. However, I find it repulsive that any news agency would publicly announce the names of a victim or shooter(s) prior to next of kin notification. When a news agency views themselves as more important than that of the victim they are covering there is something seriously wrong.

    2. Since the previous days publications already announced who the victims were the story should provide background about that. In addition to that, there should also be background provided about the shooter. After one day, there are more accounts and details coming from the witnesses. Given that they are accurate and relevant to the story they should be published in order to paint the entire picture of the story. The paper should once again not overstep their boundaries so that they don’t interfere with the ongoing investigation.

  14. 1. I think that the news organization has to be cautious with what information they provide – but that statement’s a no-brainer. How to go about deciding what is appropriate to mention during the unfolding of the event and what to leave out – that’s the hard part. I think the public has the right to know certain facts, like – “were people injured and or killed?” I think she can answer that question. I am not as convinced, though, that the reporter (McNicols) can offer as fact a specific numbered of injured/deceased because she was so shaken by the event. I think she might – MIGHT – be able to offer an estimate of the number of people injured, but could not say how many people she believed to be killed. The same goes throughout the story – when it comes to such decisive factors as life/death, I think the news has to wait to get official word from the police (no matter how long they take to release reports), because it is unfair not only to the family members who may be given false information, but it could also be potentially misleading to the public. I also think that the name of the shooter cannot be released solely based on the fact that McNichols thinks she recognized his voice. That’s not valid enough evidence. So, to recap, I think the news should report that people were injured, maybe give a number that Nichols thinks is close to accurate (like 1-5, or 5-10), don’t mention deceased yet, don’t mention names → those things should come later.

    2. Do they start hammering information to those who haven’t heard anything yet in the next day’s newspaper? (Even though some of the readers may have already gotten wind of what happened?) YES! Don’t hold information back just because someone may not be prepared to read it. As what some professors tell us often, “What’s going to make the readers slam their coffee down on the table in the morning and say ‘Oh my gosh.’ ? What’s going to complete captivate them?” While no one wants to UPSET the readers, I think it is necessary to get the reader as involved in the story as possible and give them the full-load of what happened – even if it feels like a repeat for those who’ve been following the story online. I think it’s a good idea to recap the story in one cumulative chronological presentation of facts (even though that term is used loosely in this instance).

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