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When we do and don’t cover school threats

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Posted at 3:19 PM, Oct 27, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-27 15:19:46-04

CLEVELAND — When does a threat made against a school rise to the level of news coverage? It’s something, sadly, we discuss in our newsroom.

Through the years, we’ve evolved our approach to this: If a threat is communicated, but there is no credible evidence of actual students or staff being in danger, in most cases we will not cover that threat. I know the phrase “in most cases” sounds like a bunch of weasel words, so I’ll clarify. An exception would be if the threat has an outsized impact on the community. Then that threat and the resulting impact may warrant coverage.

We are far more likely to cover a school threat if we become aware that the threat is credible, perhaps from eyewitness accounts or from talking to authorities.

Just so we’re clear, we do not learn about threats before schools do. We’re alerted to their existence by schools and law enforcement. If we did learn of a threat first, we'd notify authorities immediately.

The easy thing for us to do would be to treat all school threats the same, which would provide perfect consistency, but such a policy would absolve us from the responsibility of exercising news judgment while reporting a story where the health and safety of children is in question, which is exactly the type of story when news judgment is a must.

Unfortunately, we have a lot of experience to draw from when it comes to school threats. Because so many of them were false threats, we know the likeliest possible motive for making such a threat is disruption, attention, or both, not violence. Who is served by repeatedly publicizing baseless school threats? It’s not the public. It’s those looking to sow disruption and chaos. Unfortunately, when the media reports on false threats, the number of such threats tends to increase. We’d rather not be party to that cycle.

For those of you opening a Google tab right now, no, we have not always been perfectly consistent in our approach. We have covered some non-credible school threats before. In the wake of those stories, we’ve had discussions that have helped us refine future coverage. We know we can always do better.

As always, I welcome your feedback at joe.donatelli@wews.com.

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Joe Donatelli is the digital director at News 5. Follow him on Twitter at @jodonatelliand subscribe to his daily newsletter here.