A careful process for a sensitive story

Executive editorSeptember 2, 2012 

Who knew the posting of one 35-second video could be so complicated?

On Tuesday, before we posted to our website a video of what happened Feb. 2 in John Rosi’s classroom at Kopachuck Middle School – the subject of Sean Robinson’s front-page story today – we had a number of questions to answer.

The first question was: Is this a story?

We don’t write about every teacher suspension, only the most serious ones. In this case, the teacher was returned to a classroom, no children were physically injured and the incident was several months old.

However, the parents of the boy involved recently requested a criminal investigation that is continuing. And once we viewed the videos, we found the behavior – particularly by the teacher – questionable and decided to write about it.

Commenters on our website have asked why we kept the story quiet for so long. That’s simple. We didn’t know about it until we were contacted by the parents’ attorney a couple of weeks ago.

The school district wasn’t obligated to inform us, and we hadn’t heard about it from anyone else. Just because an attorney brings us information doesn’t mean we write about it, but in this case we decided it was newsworthy. We started with documents the parents obtained through a public records request and then began our own reporting.

The next question: Who do we name?

When covering incidents such as this, we typically don’t name the victim. This isn’t yet a criminal matter, but one boy obviously was on the receiving end of the roughhousing. We decided not to name him.

We didn’t name his parents, either. They have the same last name as the boy, so naming them indirectly would name him. However, if the parents sue the school district, we likely will name them. We generally name people who sue public entities where taxpayers would foot the bill.

We also discussed whether to name the teacher. Again, in criminal cases, we generally wait until people are charged before naming them. That first level of adjudication can weed out people who are accused and then released, and we don’t want to sully a person’s reputation for no cause. In this case the school district provided that first level of adjudication and found cause to discipline the teacher. We admittedly hold people in some professions – including teachers who have responsibility for our children – to a higher level of scrutiny. We decided to name the teacher.

Next question: Do we post the video?

We could have written the story detailing what we saw, or we could post some or all of the videos that are part of the public record. In this case, what the parents say is bullying, the teacher described as innocent horseplay. We decided to let readers see it and decide for themselves.

We selected a short clip we thought was representative of the entire 15- or 20-minute episode and showed the teacher taking part.

We wanted a clip that showed as few faces of the children as possible. In a rare move for us, we fuzzed out the faces of children who did appear. Doctoring videos goes against the rules of documentary photojournalism, but we decided the greater good was in showing the video and protecting the identity of the children. Even though several other children participated in pinning down or poking the boy, it was the teacher we thought should be held to a higher level of accountability.

Work to prepare the video took the better part of a day.

A group of reporters and editors reviewed the tape several times late Tuesday to be sure we had achieved our goals. We knew the video would be widely watched (it was viewed more than 10,000 times by Thursday evening) and wanted to do our best to be fair.

We will continue to cover this story as completely as we can while still respecting the parties involved. If you have thoughts about our coverage or further questions you think we should address, please send me a note.

karen.peterson@thenewstribune.com
253-597-8434
@TNTkpeterson

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