Disruptive threats to schools persist, so figure out a coverage plan beforehand

This week, many communities, including Las Vegas, had to respond to violent threats in schools. Schools in California, Iowa, New Jersey, AlabamaMissouri, Nebraska, Washington and Michigan all received threats of violence. 

Some canceled entire school days. In some cases, entire school systems have closed while police investigated the threats of mass shootings and other violence. Some came from social media. In a few cases, police have made arrests

In Las Vegas itself and in Alabama, police say the person making the threats directly mentioned the Las Vegas shooting as an inspiration for their actions. 

And still they may not be.

It may just be that these are part of a growing tide of threats against schools. We used to be only concerned about callers phoning in bomb threats. Now, police also have to track down cyber threats that might not come from local or even American addresses. 

If the Vegas shooting does inspire copycats it would be in keeping with what we have seen after previous incidents.  

Two years ago, researchers at Arizona State University and Northeastern Illinois University found that between 20 to 30 percent of attacks are set off by other attacks. The study said, "We find significant evidence that mass killings involving firearms are incented by similar events in the immediate past. On average, this temporary increase in probability lasts 13 days."

One study found that October is already the third highest month of the year for school threats. The same study said that the 2015-2016 school year saw a big spike in threats. 

So I would be slow to try to make any connection to the Las Vegas shooting if you do hear of a threat near you since they are already occurring with some regularity already.

What newsrooms should do

I hope you will think, today, about how your newsroom should respond if copycat threats arise in your coverage area. Have a newsroom conversation, talk about your values and ethical guidelines. This is a time to have the conversations about how you value accuracy over speed and how you are dedicated to throttle back the tone and content of headlines and social media posts.

How would your newsroom react if the threat calls came to you? What if you detect them online or through social media?  Be sure that you include other parts of your company in your conversations in case the threats flow in through the switchboard. Be sure all employees understand that everything they post on social media whether on personal or business accounts have the potential to cause harm.

This is the ideal time for you to have conversations with school administrators and police about their protocols. How do they handle these cases and what concerns do they have about coverage of them? Front-end conversations signal to authorities that you are thoughtful and careful. Ask school systems how they communicate with parents when there is a threat. Use this front-end discussion to gather contact names and numbers that you can call after hours or on weekends. 

I would be circumspect about running any stories about copycats if there are none. I see no benefit in planting the seed in somebody's mind so soon after a brutal event like Vegas.

Some years ago, my Poynter colleague Bob Steele and I wrote a series of coverage guidelines for the Radio Television Digital News Association, including guidelines for covering violent threats. Let these will serve as a framework for your discussions.

Ask: 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 to normal life in your community? What is the impact this event has on law enforcement or emergency crews' ability 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. Reporting arrests might discourage such threats by showing the consequences for threatening others. Other consequences might include raising the public's level of insecurity even when it is not warranted. Repeated broadcasting of bomb hoaxes can have the effect of crying wolf with the public becoming less responsive when actual danger arises. But the reporting on the volume and range of threats could inform our viewers and listeners about the pressures our police and schools officials are under. It could be important for the public to understand why officials react as they do.

How could you justify your decisions about where and how you play stories about threats in your newscasts? How do you explain your decisions to your staff and to your viewers? How much discussion have you had in your newsroom about your coverage? What experts or persons outside your newsroom could you contact for their perspectives about how you should treat this story?

Be careful about the tone of your coverage. Avoid words like chaos, terror, and mayhem; they are subjective words. Play it straight. Tone down your teases, 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 may warp 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?

Minimize harm. We sometimes cause harm in the process of performing our journalistic duty, but it should only be harm we can justify. Special care should be given when covering juveniles. You should carefully consider whether placing a prank phone call warrants naming a juvenile. 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.

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    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.

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