Summit Daily News editorial: Communication in a crisis
April 6, 2017
When a threat to our safety emerges, rumors are apt to fly, and the likelihood of miscommunication rises like a flash flood. Such was the case last week when a tip sent through the Safe2Tell hotline on March 28 triggered a wave of fear among Summit County parents.
The anonymous tipster said a student at the middle school threatened violence toward fellow classmates. The Summit County Sheriff's Office began investigating the claim, immediately making contact with the suspect and ensuring that any danger, real or imagined, was neutralized.
Ultimately, the system worked. A crisis situation was averted, and no one was hurt. Safe2Tell, a communications system run by the Colorado Attorney General's Office, proved to be an invaluable tool in helping school and law enforcement officials to get in front of a potential tragedy in the making.
However, how this incident was communicated to the public kicked up a cloud of confusion. Many parents were upset that the school district hadn't given them more detail relating to the nature of the threat. This is understandable. We all fear the unknown. Information brings clarity — that's the rule we live by every day here at the Summit Daily News.
However, in this age of mass electronic communication, it's easy for fear and uncertainty to take hold. Who can you really trust? Can this Facebook post be believed? Does this tweet check out?
The school district did not tell parents in communications sent out last week that the student had made threats of gun violence. However, the Daily, in an interview with Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons, confirmed that piece of information and posted it to our website on March 30. The story printed in the March 31 edition of the paper. Parents were angered that the report in the newspaper differed from the story they heard from school officials. They didn't know who, or what, to believe. They felt they were being left in the dark.
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Then, on March 31, Summit School District Superintendent Kerry Buhler sent out a letter to parents assuring them that the school district was relaying all the information it could on the incident. She also said in the letter that she disagreed with "the media portrayal" of the threat.
In a time when it isn't uncommon for a politician to label reporting they don't like as "fake news," this caught our attention. We take our mission to get the story right very seriously. We don't always succeed. But when we get something wrong, we rely on readers to tell us where we strayed. Don't just call it fake — give us the facts.
In the end, we do not believe Buhler was attempting to undermine our credibility (some media outlets did get some details wrong). We believe she had the best interests of students and parents in mind when she sent her letter last week. However, we stand behind our reporting. We also recognize there is much more to the story. Both the school district and the sheriff's office are conducting separate investigations. While we believe firmly in the public's right to know, we recognize the need for that process to play out in confidentiality.
Crises demand credible sources of facts. They also demand a high level of cooperation. It's not always easy to get that part right.