Teachers: What Would You Do?

How about a late-in-the-school-year exercise in news judgment and journalism ethics?  This is for broadcast teachers to discuss with their kids.

Here are the facts.  What would you do?

*A tragic car crash kills one teen, while the other is injured, but survives.  Both victims are female.  This happens late on a Friday night.

*The local police respond and because of a mix-up in the identification process at the scene, they notify Family A that their daughter is dead.  Family B is told their daughter is in the hospital, but alive.  

*The Family A father gets on a plane and flies home as fast as he can after learning his daughter died in the crash.

*Four hours pass, and the police learn they have made a terrible mistake.  They now must inform both families of their error, telling Family A their daughter actually survived, and Family B that it was really their daughter who died at the scene.

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Teachers, you have a student who wants to do a story about police confusing the two families, how and why it happened, and how the families reacted.  

Do you let them do the story?  Let’s say you do, and the following things happen to your crew:

*They interview the father who flew home only to learn his daughter was alive, and they interview his daughter, the one who was initially thought to be dead at the scene.   

*They interview a spokesman from the police department about the ID mix up.  

*They can not get an interview with the family that actually lost their daughter.  

*They go to the scene of the crash and the reporter does a stand-up that transitions to the part of the story dealing with the misidentification.

Now they are editing the story.  It is 75% done, and you have slotted it as your lead story.  Anchor spots have been shot.  It is Wednesday morning, and the show runs Friday.

On Wednesday evening, your reporter talks to a classmate who was actually with the two girls the night of the wreck.  In fact, the reporter learns about a party the girls attended with lots of other kids.  The classmate tells your reporter, "Everyone knew the girls had too much to drink."  

With this information, your reporter calls the police spokesman who can only confirm that any test done on the driver’s blood will not be reported for a few weeks.  No further comment on the possibility of impaired driving.

So now what do you do?  You have a really strong story almost done—one about a deadly crash, and the stunning part about the police’s misidentification.  It has drama, strong bites, is a very compelling piece. 

But you only have part of the story.  Everyone was lying, or only telling half of the truth about that night.  The father and the daughter who survived know it is probably going to be ruled a drunk driving crash.  They knew that when you interviewed them, but never mentioned it. 

The police know it as well, but will not confirm it.  

Students at your school attended the party and have not come forward because they could get into hot water with their own parents, coaches, administrators, and maybe law enforcement.

You had a great story.  

No, WE had a great story.  Because this actually happened to us about 20 years ago.  

Our final decision:  We had to kill the story and lead with something else.   Our deadline was on top of us, and we had no time to chase down all of these extra layers of the story and report them accurately and fairly.

By the time our next show came around a month later, even fewer people were willing to talk.  So we moved on.  The local press followed up with the details about alcohol playing a part in the crash in the weeks after our monthly show aired without the story.

My staff leaders made the final call.  They said they could not report just part of the story when they knew there was so much more to it.  They were frustrated by the facts that came to light later on, so close to deadline, but I thought they made the right call.  What do you think?