Since the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., a rash of bomb threats at schools has led to early dismissals, dog-sniffing searches and a debate on the role of local media in covering such events. The Poynter Institute' s Al Tompkins offers these coverage guidelines:
What is my journalistic duty in reporting this story?
What do our viewers need to know? What is the threat to life or property? What are the consequences of the event itself? How significant is the evacuation and the interruption of normal life in your community? What is the impact this event has on the ability of law enforcement or emergency crews to respond to other calls? What else is this story about? What is the story behind the story? (In some cases, racial slurs and threats have been sprayed on school walls.)
What are the possible consequences of my actions and decisions?
Reporting a false threat could lead to copycat threats, or reporting arrests might discourage such threats by showing the consequences of threatening others. Other consequences might include raising the public' s level of insecurity when it is not warranted. Repeated broadcasting of bomb hoaxes can have the effect of "crying wolf," and the public becomes less responsive when actual danger arises. But the reporting on the volume and range of threats could inform viewers and listeners about the pressures under which police and school officials labor. It could be important for the public to understand why officials react as they do.
How do you explain your decisions to your staff and to your viewers?
How could you justify your decisions about where and how you play stories about bomb threats in your newscasts? How much discussion have you had in your newsroom about your coverage? Which experts or persons outside your newsroom could you contact to get their perspectives about how you should treat this story?
Be careful about the tone of coverage.
Avoid words like "chaos," "terror," and."mayhem." They are subjective words. Play it straight. Tone down your teases and leads and graphics. The tone of what you report should not contradict the careful reporting of facts you include in your stories. Think carefully before "going live" in covering these stories. You have less editorial control in live situations. The emphasis on live coverage may deflect the attention these stories deserve. A lead story carries different weight from a story that is deeper in the newscast. How can you justify the positioning of your coverage?
Cover the process more than the events.
What thought are you giving to the bigger issues involved in this story? How easy is it for schools, the phone company or cops to track down a threatening caller? How seriously are violators treated? Have you ever followed one of these cases through the legal system to find out what happens? How many bomb threats did police handle last year? How many resulted in prosecution? How many of those prosecuted went to jail or were actually punished? What was the extent of the punishment? Do your schools have caller ID systems in place? Do they or should they record incoming phone calls?
We sometimes cause harm in the process of performing our journalistic duty, but it should be only the harm we can justify. Special care should be taken when covering juveniles. You should carefully consider whether placing a prank phone call warrants naming a juvenile. In one instance in upstate New York, a TV station could not talk with the juvenile suspected of placing the prank phone call, so the station interviewed the suspect's teen-age brother. What harm do we cause by sending a news photographer to a school that has been threatened by a caller?
Thoughtful stations hold these conversations about coverage before they are faced with a crisis. Front-end decision-making that includes many voices in the conversation results in fuller and more thoughtful coverage.