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As story of the year unfolds, Auburn student journalists face challenge

If it had not been for Twitter, I might just have gone on to church.

As I prepared to leave at 6:30 a.m. for an early service, I checked al.com, where there was news of a shooting in Auburn with unidentified fatalities.  But it was not until I checked my Twitter feed and saw re-tweets of expressed grief for two former Auburn football players that I realized.

This was a big story.

So I texted Robert Lee, summer Plainsman editor, who was out of town for the weekend.  I also called Austin Phillips, who is serving as summer Plainsman adviser while I am on a research leave.  He was in Birmingham.

So began seven hours of guiding The Plainsman staff through the reporting of a high-profile story, laden with ethical challenges, shifting information, and students learning by doing.  Forgive the delay for a day of reflection.  Here is how it happened:

We agreed that Robert would call the staff and get as many to the office as possible.  I posted the call to action on the department Facebook page and the student e-mail list, which I had access to.  Then I headed to the office.  Well, I stopped and got a couple of donuts and coffee — as any journalist would.

From Robert, I learned that Andrew Yawn, community editor, had spent the night at the crime scene and was preparing an article.  He had also tweeted some updates.  Andrew had finished working a long shift at Five Guys and was heading to visit a friend when another Plainsman staffer, Zeke Turrentine, told him about the shooting.

Andrew posted the article right as I was getting to the office.  The first thing I learned is that I have access to the Student Center through my University ID.  I learned this after trying every key I had in the door locks without success.  Robert suggested the successful swipe method.  Melody Kitchens, managing editor (who would direct The Plainsman staff on-site in Robert’s absence), arrived soon after I did.  Task #1 would be updating the Web site article.

This involved Ethical Question #1.  Andrew had identified the two former Auburn football players killed in the shooting (Ed Christian and Ladarious Phillips), even though the police had not.  The important thing to note here is that Andrew made the best decision he could as the journalist on-site.  It was his decision to make, and he made it.

After we discussed it, Melody decided Andrew had made the right decision, and I agreed, though with a knot in my stomach.  Even though we did not have independent confirmation, the flood of player tweets, without a refuting response from anyone official or unofficial, 8-1/2 hours after the incident, indicated that the information was reliable, as it turned out to be.

The story included some details that did not have police verification, so those were deleted.  But the names were left in, and some news sources quoted The Plainsman article as a form of verification.  Again, this was the students’ call.  It could have come back to bite them (as in the premature reporting of Joe Paterno’s death), but the information was correct.  So any disagreement was a matter of style, not substance.

Andrew headed to bed after his article, and other students began to arrive at The Plainsman office.  Ben Croomes, summer opinion editor, showed up with his sister, Rebecca Croomes, who is not on The Plainsman staff this summer but came anyway to help take photos.  TJ Harlin, campus editor, also arrived, along with Nathan Simone, social media editor.  John Holtrop, sports editor, called from his early-morning job at a local golf course (Maybe college students work harder than we think) and promised to join them when he got off work at 10 a.m., having worked since sunrise.  Graphic design editor Rachel Suhs and summer photo editor Danielle Lowe also pitched in.

As they planned their strategy, I ran to McDonald’s for coffee for everyone.  I know my job as an adviser.

After I came back, they executed the plan.  Ben and Rebecca worked together.  TJ went by the golf course to get John.  The four of them and Danielle headed to University Heights, the apartment complex where the shooting took place, to see what they could find out.  Nathan stayed back and monitored social media, while Rebecca and later Anna Claire Conrad, summer copy editor, scanned Web sites for information.

Important Lesson: At the risk of sounding condescending or patronizing — It turned out that sending the students in pairs to the scene was a good idea, especially throwing them into a fast-changing hard news situation like this.  I think it gave them a little extra confidence and support.

Meanwhile, back at The Plainsman, we had to confront a curious rumor.  Somehow, CNN was reporting that our Twitter account had been suspended and related it to the fact that the newspaper Twitter feed had identified the victims.  We checked our own Twitter feeds and that was not the case at all.  We were all getting updates.

It was traced back to an individual (whom I wish I could name, but I did not take it down), who tried to search for “@TheAuburnPlainsman” on Twitter and found the account suspended.  He/she drew the wrong conclusion.  The account was suspended a few months ago and replaced by “@TheAUPlainsman.”  The previous account was set up by our Web provider to post articles, but no one at the provider had the codes, so we could not control the information on the feed to the extent we needed to.  So Twitter deleted the account for us.  I cannot find that detail in any other links from CNN related to the article, so I assume it was corrected.

The Plainsman’s only response was to tweet that the CNN article was not correct.  In retrospect, I am proud that the students did not obsess over the misreporting, but instead moved on to do their work.  Some news organizations can be a little paranoid about being reported on, but our students were not.

As students phoned in other bits of information, Melody updated the article, and the views increased.  I wish I could say it was close to the most viewed article, but it remains eclipsed, by a multiple of 3, by an article published a couple of years ago about how Greeks dress.  That went viral.  I will leave you to make the value judgments there.  The other good news is that the new Twitter account went from 600 followers to more than 1,800.

Meanwhile, Robert Lee and Austin Phillips — both frustrated over the distance from a big story — were constantly phoning and texting, offering information sources and asking questions.  It is tough to be so close emotionally to, but so far geographically from, a big story.

As we worked, the students were surprised to learn that other media wanted to interview them.  Melody fielded a taped interview request from CBS, and John Holtrop was interviewed live by CNN.  I gave both a couple of quick tips (take your time on taped interviews, answer only the question asked), but I did not hear the results of either interview, though I did hear secondhand that John’s interview went well.  They have my admiration.  I stress enough over what I write; I don’t know that I could handle a live interview under such pressured conditions.

Meanwhile, we, like many people, were frustrated by the lack of official information.  An 11 a.m. press conference at University Heights became an “after 11 a.m.” press conference became a noon press conference became a noon press conference at the Auburn Police Department became a 1 p.m. press conference at the Auburn Police Department.  Someone heard it was pushed back to 2 p.m., but we figured that was an outlet reporting it on Eastern time.

At the same time, I acknowledge that the Auburn PD has their job to do, as does the news media.  It is not necessary for each party to appreciate or endorse how the other party does it.  Nor is it incumbent on each party to expect the other party to do their job for them.  The Auburn PD handled it the way they felt best.  The Auburn Plainsman and other news media outlets handled it the way they felt best.  Agree to disagree with professional respect.  End of story.  Move on.

Through the morning, The Plainsman kept trying to get original information to include in our articles.  Much of our reliable information was aggregated from other sources, though the Plainsman got its share of fresh stuff.  They tried crowdsourcing through our social media, Facebook messages to friends and friends of friends who identified themselves as witnesses (but did not want to be identified in an article), and Reddit.  The efforts deserved better results, but this happens when the media descend on such a story.

Finally, it was announced shortly before noon that the police were leaving the scene at University Heights and going to the police department for the 1 p.m. press conference.  The students headed over — which, we realized later, was a tactical error.  Once the police left the scene, residents were finally allowed to leave University Heights.  As a result, our students missed out on interviewing a lot of witnesses.  Other reporters, who stayed a few extra minutes, got some great stuff.  Filed under “I wish I’d thought of that.”

Chief Dawson’s press conference has been seen and broadcast enough, and he did a good job at providing needed information.  Our students live-tweeted it and filmed it on an iPhone (with predictable quality, but at least we had original digital video on the Web site.)  Once the press conference ended, at about 1:25 p.m., I took my leave and they followed through.  Jennifer Adams, journalism program director, sent over pizza for the staff who didn’t head home for a break.

As for the rest of the week, who knows.  They are back in the highly capable, hugely underpaid hands of Austin.  He stood with them late through the Monday night standoff insanity.  They still have a newspaper to put out on Thursday, but between now and then even more different new stories will break related to the case.  No doubt the newspaper will include a tribute to their fellow students who died so young.

It’s strange when something like this happens.  The shooting death of three young men affects us because we live here, and we interact with the news in so many different ways.  But then we pull back and we realize that it is also news nationally — getting more coverage than the latest out of Syria, the Southwest wildfires and the presidential campaign.

And there, alongside veteran journalists with fatter paychecks and more experience, The Auburn Plainsman staff showed themselves to be equal to the task.  We all learned a few things from the experience; but they showed that they already know quite a bit.

Plainsman photo by Danielle Lowe.

John Carvalho, associate professor of journalism at Auburn, blogs about the sports media at johncarvalhoau.tumblr.com. Find him on Twitter at @johncarvalhoau. Read his previous columns here.

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