Opinion: Community over clicks

Attendees pray together at a vigil for the victims of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School at the Parkland Baptist Church, Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018, in Parkland, Fla. Nikolas Cruz, a former student, was charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder Thursday morning. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Let’s take a quick look at what didn’t happen in Starkville this past week.

There wasn’t a school shooting in Oktibbeha County. No local schools were placed on lockdown and, as it turns out, there wasn’t a masked man going around “braking” into houses and raping women across the city.

At the Starkville Daily News, we knew about each non-issue as the speculation swelled on the Facebook and Twitter feeds of people in the community. But, before we reported the first word, we confirmed that both were simply unsubstantiated nonsense posted on social media.

We went on about our day, deciding to not heavily publicize the incidents, or lack thereof.

Experience tells me that, had we written a full story about something not happening, we would have been lambasted for playing into the chaos and propagating the misinformation circulated on social media.

I’ve seen this happen in other places, with readers saying “If nothing happened, then why did you do a story?”

A handful of keyboard warriors were quick to condemn the paper for not caring or listening to “the children” in the wake of both occurrences, but I can assure you, the decision was made wholly out of respect. It’s a call editors in newsrooms across the country have to make every day, with each case presenting its own set of individual challenges.

One time-tested general guideline is to simply not print rumors or innuendo because of the legitimacy it can add to the source of misinformation. It gives certain people the attention they seek and only serves to encourage more of the same once it enters the media sphere.

Still, the air of our current social climate is thick with paranoia and fear, especially following the Parkland school shooting. In a breaking news situation, media can’t immediately get information from officials as a situation is still unfolding, so they have to rely on bystanders and talk to experts who study the subject. Sometimes, that initial reporting can get dangerously close to irresponsible speculation framed as fact.

I remember seeing one tweet in the wake of the shooting in Florida that said 20-50 people were killed … while the real number still sits at 17.

So, how have we as local media and a community handled the paranoia boiling over in our own back yard?

We rush headlong like hogs to the trough to believe typo-riddled social media posts and allow our community to be driven into chaos over nothing, simply because the vast majority of social media users don’t care about facts and some media outlets don’t seem concerned with the residual effects of their recklessness.

While I’m not a member, I believe the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) puts it plainly in its Code of Ethics: “Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage.”

Over the last week, I began to slowly lose faith that this belief is important anymore. Have we as media cast aside our moral aversion to rumor and innuendo?

In the present, many intelligent and hardworking people are justifiably too busy to be media literate and, in turn, media is content to capitalize on it by employing anonymous sources and drumming up chaos during false alarms, just for the website traffic and exposure.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m just as complicit as everyone else because I did make a conscious decision to acknowledge the events on the SDN’s social media, despite both being the result of debunked social media posts.

But, I will have to be dragged out of my office by my ankles before I allow the community’s paper of record to publish stories that lend a microphone to people simply looking to cause drama.

I’m not patting myself on the back because I think I did the right thing. Rather, I believe it is important to explain the ethical choices and processes of the paper to our audience with the goal of encouraging a civil dialogue about journalistic practices … which is a central tenet of the SPJ Code of Ethics.

I’m fortunate enough to have seen this applied firsthand when I worked as a statehouse reporter for the Associated Press in Atlanta.

In one instance, we had someone announce they were coming to downtown with the intention of hosting an armed rally where a Koran would be torn up on the Capitol grounds.

We were intially told “thousands” of gun-wielding nationalists would attend and it was to be the banner event of the season for the Deep South alt-right.

But, as reality would have it, only two guys showed up.

My editor at that time was and is a brilliant journalist and the best in the business at what he does. I remember to this day the long conversation we had about how to handle the story.

Without getting too much into the in-house details, the order came down from up top that I was to get to the bottom of what was going on, but not publish a word unless something drastic or violent happened.

A cheap paperback Koran was eventually desecrated in front of a small crowd and a few harsh words said, but other than that, the day passed without issue - despite me having to change undershirts because of the heat, coupled with the fact that police snipers had formed a rooftop perimeter around where the protest occurred.

The event was a big deal for media in terms of potential, but since nothing happened where anyone was physically harmed, not a word was written about it by most. Some news outlets in the media-dense market gave it light coverage, but I’m still proud to say that I did not contribute to fear or paranoia surrounding the event.

The First Amendment rights of the two men were honored and since there was little advanced or retrospective coverage, the city was not driven into a frenzy of speculation about what might happen.

The implied reasoning behind not giving this wack job the attention he sought was to avoid giving a platform to someone who just wanted to stir the pot.

That is the belief I was taught under and it will remain the ethical compass that guides what is covered and what is not in the Starkville Daily News.

It is this rule, or at least is in most professional newsrooms, that has for years governed the coverage of sensitive topics such as suicides, bomb threats, school shooter threats and so on.

It is simply unethical to report on the lack of a socially-impactful incident occurring, and furthermore, it is flat out reckless and irresponsible to share a Facebook post that is potentially dangerous to the community psyche, just because someone down the street did.

In moving forward to the next controversy, we have to be able to think past our foreheads and see the bigger picture, not only as media, but as a community.

-- Ryan Phillips is the executive editor of the Starkville Daily News and Daily Times Leader. The views expressed in this column are his and do not necessarily reflect the views of either paper or their staffs.